Earlier this month, the Golden Globes were guided by a recurrent melody: freedom of artistic expression must be defended and protected. Presenters, recipients, and hosts alike spoke out against the threats of terror from North Korea that derailed The Interview as well as the tragic attacks on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and with good reason.
But there’s an elephant in the room. Several weighty names in the media industry, like the New Yorker, have boldly claimed that it’s skirting around the issue to talk about the Charlie Hebdo attack without talking about radical Islam. Discussing terrorism while ignoring the ideologies that prompt terrorism is handling the issue with kid gloves, but if it’s so important to discuss the ideology of a terrorist, why are we choosing to ignore the ideology behind The Interview and Charlie Hebdo? Why do we feel the need to use words like “satire” and “criticism” in reference to media that is intentionally crass and offensive to no end other than cheap laughs? Why do we pretend we are defending freedom of speech when we are actually defending the freedom to be racist?
America is living in a post-Trayvon society. We have seen the end result of racism in all its ugliness. The bodies of Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Antonio Martin were plastered across our television screens, while our movie theaters are full of Oscar-bait black suffering. From Paula Deen to Artie Lang to Macklemore, the American public, emboldened by social media, has become insistent that racism will not be tolerated. And for awhile, it worked. Racism stopped being funny. It’s not surprising. I imagine it’s harder to laugh at a racist joke when you know the punch line is exactly what was going through the mind of George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson as they murdered unarmed teenagers.
In the past, people who were critical of racist jokes could easily be cast off as too sensitive. In 1993, sitcom Murphy Brown aired a classic episode entitled “Political Correctness,” in which it was suggested that it’s impossible to not be a tiny bit offensive every now and then. The most famous song from the musical Avenue Q, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” is oft-referenced as a fact of life. These two entities, a decade apart, had both cemented themselves into the American consciousness. Racism was normal, natural, and essentially harmless. Anyone who would suggest otherwise is just being self-involved and pretentious.
This idea has been eroded ever since George Zimmerman was acquitted, and as it seems a week cannot pass without hearing about another unarmed black teenager being killed by the police, it is becoming increasingly difficult for proponents of offensive comedy to paint their opposition as shrill, self-righteous harpies.
The discussions surrounding Charlie Hebdo and The Interview have reversed that trend. No one has denied that Charlie Hebdo regularly peddled incredibly racist content, and even Tina Fey Sunday night suggested that the threat of terror prompted us to “pretend we wanted to watch The Interview.” In the national discussion, none of that matters. All that matters is that they became victims of terrorism. The artists are painted as unconditionally in the right. Every thinkpiece published on the subject, it seems, must contain no less than five formal condemnations of terrorism, and this one is no exception: under no uncertain terms, terrorism is objectively wrong in every case, and what happened in Paris is a tragedy. But even that unwritten rule serves a subtle purpose, to maintain focus on the right to be racist.
The Golden Globes featured a running gag in which a North Korean woman was made the butt of a series of dictator jokes. As Adrian Hong pointed out in the Atlantic last month, the brutal oppression of the North Korean people is not funny, and to make trivial jokes about their plight is deeply offensive. Terrorism is worse than racism though. As the national conversation becomes more and more simplified, as the racism at the root of these artistic expressions is continuously ignored and glossed over,
In the wake of the Paris shootings, Reddit user IDrawMuhammad received high praise for their claim to draw the Prophet every day for a year. The user was showered with upvotes, as well as fifteen months of Reddit gold, a sort of top prize for comments posted on the site. It’s rare to receive even one, but IDrawMuhammad was given fifteen. The comments were full of other users patting IDrawMuhammad on the back for defending free speech and condemning terror, but one user, TheFirstAndrew, keyed in on a sad side effect of the attacks.
“Sadly, given all the people not realizing how much they might be insulting and offending normal, sane, peaceful Muslims while they’re trying to offend the terrorists, [the terrorists] have probably been successful in part,” they said.
Another user replied, “I don’t really understand why people want to go out of their way to offend people in the name of free speech. Just because you are exercising your right to free speech, doesn’t mean you aren’t being a dick.”
Both of these users, though optimistic about the intentions of their fellow Redditors, are missing the point of the discourse. The Interview and Charlie Hebdo were not just exercising their free speech, and to boil the discussion down to such a fluffy, easily digestible term is intellectually fraudulent. They were exercising racism, which is their right in a free democracy. It doesn’t make for a catchy, feel-good soundbite, but it’s true. The Golden Globes’ North Korea jokes and the legions of people drawing Muhammad have struck a blow, not for freedom of speech, but for the freedom to be racist.