Posted on 22 May 2010, 17:07
It’s hard to know what was going on in the mind of Molly Norris, a previously little-known cartoonist in Seattle, who casually proposed celebrating 20 May as Everybody Draw Mohammed Day on her blog back in April (complete with her own cartoon, above). Presumably she’s never attacked a hornet’s nest with a large stick. Her post was a protest at Comedy Central’s decision to edit sections of an episode of South Park showing Muhammad dressed in a bear costume.
Norris’s proposal sparked a Facebook group campaigning for the event, under the banner of freedom of speech, which was quickly countered by other Facebook groups attacking it. Under a rain of angry emails, Norris withdrew her proposal, but by then the juggernaut was rolling. ‘It’s been horrible,’ she said in an interview. ‘I’m just trying to breathe and get through it.’
When I checked on the morning of 20 May, the Facebook group had 77,000 members and 6,000 images, most of them of the sort that would make the calmest imam delve into his filing cabinet for the section called fatwa. Looking at the brutality of the visual humour, I was reminded of a comment in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, where one of the storytellers says that ‘the nature of wit is such that its bite must be like that of a sheep rather than of a dog, for if it were to bite the listener like a dog, it would no longer be wit but abuse.’
By that point, Pakistan had blocked the whole of Facebook, and followed that up by blocking YouTube, which was carrying video contributions to the campaign. Later in the day, after the group soared past 100,000 members, Facebook removed it, presumably under pressure from protesters.
Out and out mockery of people’s deeply held beliefs has a long and undistinguished history. One of the earliest images we have of the crucifixion is a piece of graffiti scrawled on a wall in Rome showing Jesus with the head of a donkey. That public attack on the Christian faith is mild compared with the savagery in the images collected on Facebook, and it’s surprising that the event hasn’t roused the mass demonstrations which followed the publication in 2005 of the infamous Muhammad cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Five people died then in the riots in Pakistan.
All religions, but especially the ones in the monotheism brand, need to find ways to take the piss out of themselves, since they have always been so brilliant at taking themselves too seriously. Religions with no sense of humour play especially badly in the western world where irony is in the very air we breathe. If religions can’t or won’t do this, they open themselves to cultural attack, and social media now make this possible in a fast-moving and extremely uninhibited way.
It takes just a few minutes to make an image trashing someone else’s deeply held beliefs, adding shock in the form of bestiality, paedophilia or whatever else comes to hand, and then posting it from the comfort of your laptop. But added to that is the high of performing on the Facebook stage, of knowing that my joke or insult will succeed in amusing or enraging thousands of others.
We’re suddenly living in the age of mass satire, where poorly-considered but deadly insults, barely clothed in humour, are published instantly and made available to a global audience. In the social furnace of Facebook, such rapidly accumulating insults create the visceral mood and momentum of a mob. Reading the wall comments of the ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ group, with posts pro and anti, is like hearing the bigoted chants of two opposed gangs burning with hatred for each other.
There has been an unexpected moment of redemption, though. In the run-up to 20 May, atheist and humanist students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison chalked stick figures on the ground of their campus, captioning them ‘Muhammad’. The Muslim Student Association found a witty way of responding, not by erasing the images, but by adding boxing gloves to the figures and the word ‘Ali’ after ‘Muhammad’.
Maybe if South Park had gone for the same visual gag, the whole thing might never have happened.