Thursday, September 13, 2012

Islam, Film, Anti-Americanism

I likely have been commenting on current events more then I should. The goal of this blog was to try to address issues related to Canadian Studies; not to serve as a soapbox for my own views on whatever is passing for news on any given day. The protests that have erupted in various parts of the world relating to the film "Innocence of Muslims" is a current event and it does not have much to do with Canada. Clearly this is the kind of event -- the protests, violence, and murders -- that seems to almost call out for easy denunciations. That might be a good thing. Murdering people is something that should be denounced. Instead of making that easy denunciation, however, (enough people who are far far more important than I have already done that), let me raise again the issue of "free speech." Let me make a couple of quick points about the film. Like others, I watched the two medium length excepts from it on Youtube.

First, its a bad film from just about any perspective. It looks like it was made by a couple of high school students in someone's basement. Horrible acting, rotten -- really really rotten -- cinematography. In fact, I don't think we can use the words acting and cinematography to describe the film. Often people disagree on films (I loved the Dead Poets Society; my wife hated it). On this, there will be no disagreement by anyone. It is not a film because, well, it has no artistic value.  Watching it is a waste of your time.  If you are a Youtube aficionado, your time is better spent watching clips of Rick Mercer or Neil Young. Recommending that someone watch this film is like recommending that someone "try" really horrible food (say, spoilt milk).  Sometimes people will recommend books or novels or music to you that they don't really like but will say, "you know, you won't like X but you should listen, read, watch it sometime." Dr. Who is kind of like that. You might like it or dislike it, but everyone should watch an episode or two sometime. Ayn Rand's or Nietzsche's philosophies are the same way.  Or, a Molinari painting. This film really is not like this at all. It really is the filmic equivalent of bad food; the only thing it can do for you is make you ill. It can't dazzle you with its art, impress you with its mastery of kitsch, cause you to pause of the dialogue. It has no redeeming artistic virtues because, as I said, it is not art.

Second, because it has no artistic value, this film is pure propaganda, which pushes consideration of it toward the issue of free speech but in a different way then debating artistic integrity. Let's dispense with the rights question. Does whomever made this film have the right to make it. Sure they do, particularly in the US where this is covered by the US Bill of Rights. There is not debate, or should be not debate, about whether or not the people who made this film have the right to make it.

This is a different issue then asking "should they have made this film?" This is an important point and one that I try to convey to my students when I teach about the Canadian Charter: just because you have the right to do something under the law does not mean that you should, in an ethical or moral sense, do it. I have the right to spend all my money -- should I so desire -- on candy bars. I have the right to eat chocolate pudding for breakfast. And, I have the right to call my neighbour a jerk if she (my neighbour is a colleague) upsets me. That does not mean that I should do it. You see the difference. This is something that every parent, I think, at some point in time tries to teach their children: just because you can do something does not mean that you should do something. The rights of the US Bill of Rights mean that a person can make this film and distribute it. In Canada, I'd argue, same thing. But that does not mean that they should do it.

Why? The answer might seem obvious but there are people who will cry "political correctness" at what I am about to say. There are people who will say "we should not be afraid to offend others."  What if Galileo had backed down? Well, there is a difference. Galileo was dealing with a scientific discovery (and, he did back down) but this film deals with an opinion about Islam. One (Galileo) dealt in fact; the other (this film) deals in propaganda.

Each of us at some point in time will need to ask ourselves this question: should I offend others? We will each answer that question differently depending on the context. There are times when it is necessary to offend people and some people are far too easily offended. But, why needlessly offend people? What good is served? The production of this film does not defend freedom of speech because freedom of speech in the US was not under threat. Any idiot can say whatever they want in the US and get on the news doing it (don't believe me, flip on Fox News sometime). To argue that this film somehow is important for free speech is the equivalent of saying that I need more candy bars. It just ain't true. Americans are already doing quite a good job of defending free speech without it.

The issue, then, is should we knowingly offend people for no good reason. At the risk of being called politically correct, I will argue no. We might need to offend people in life but we should do that for a good reason or because there is an important issue at stack. I have offended students by accident and apologized for it because the offending comments I made served no purpose. I should not have made them. Mea culpa and I say this so others will learn from my mistake. To support this film means that you have to support the idea that you should -- for no good reason -- needlessly offend people.  I just think that is wrong. I teach my children not to do it and I suspect most other people do too.

A final point, someone might say "yeah, but there are a lot of films out there offensive to Christians." What about _Jesus of Montreal_, someone might say to me. You're a Denys Arcand fan but I, as a Christian, find _Jesus of Montreal_ offensive. I won't get into the details of this film. It is artistic and can viewed on that level. I'd also argue that this film in no way "shoots down" Jesus. Indeed, the point of the film is that Jesus message remains as important today as it ever was, even if the language and some of the scenes might be offensive to some viewers. To this general question, however, I say yes. There are a lot of films that I find offensive as a Christian and it is precisely because I find them offensive that I do not wish that feeling (that feeling of being mocked and belittled, of having someone else make fun of one's deepest beliefs) on others. It is precisely because I have been offended and have had to stand in silence and "take it" that I don't want to see others have to be offended. There can be, should be, and is, a lively discussion of the merits of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and all other organized and even disorganized religions. That is not offensive and that is fair enough. But purposely making a film that intentionally avoids lively debate and goes for the cheap shot ... well, that is something different.
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