Tuesday, May 18, 2010


If you still have questions about either the stick figure Muhammad chalkings or Draw Muhammad Day, it would behoove you to visit ChalkFire.com (a huge thanks goes to UIUC's Ed Clint, UW-Madison's Chris Calvey, and SSA's Jesse Galef for getting this site launched!)

I would also like to take this time to promote a very insightful op-ed piece about the chalking events of 5/9, written by the Executive Editor of The Northwestern Chronicle, Alex Katz: The Audacity of Chalk.

And if you're interested in learning more about the NU SHIFT , I would implore you visit our Facebook profile.

Thank you!
We will be bringing you more updates soon!


Cassy Byrne
President of SHIFT
(Secular Humanists for Inquiry & FreeThought)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Follow-Up Blog (please, see previous post for initial Official Statement)

Two days have passed since our chalking event, and the responses have been turbulent indeed.

I'll admit that it can be quite confusing to sift through all the layers of a self-referential statement such as the one we made Sunday night with our chalk drawings. In invoking the freedom of expression, we then made a statement about the freedom of expression, and this may have misled some of the members of our community into thinking this was about religion, rather than about free speech. Perhaps we were not explicit enough (although we did surround our chalk drawings with chalk statements, as well as with flyers advertising an open discussion — about the freedom of expression itself — with links leading directly to SHIFT's official statement explaining the entire event). Or perhaps the media misrepresented the situation by bringing the McSA under interrogation needlessly, thereby introducing an entirely inappropriate "us vs. them" mentality and tainting the atmosphere surrounding our actions from the very beginning.

Whatever the case may be, we have since explained in this Letter to the Editor of NBN our reasons behind not contacting the McSA prior to the event (among other concerns raised by the public since yesterday), but I will reemphasize those points here, as they are crucial yet still regrettably misunderstood by the community.

Our statement offered no commentary on the Islamic faith itself. All accusations made thus far to that effect, we believe to be merely a byproduct of the very same unspeakable taboo we sought to expose with this statement. Creating a societal norm in which it is acceptable to depict any other religious, political, or celebrity figure — no matter the context and without any threat of repercussion — until the moment when the icon is Islamic, and then the rules change ... is, quite frankly, nonsensical to us. We acknowledge that there is great value in discussing the reasons behind this anomaly, as well as in proposing collaborative efforts that may help to address the concerns we have about it — and that is exactly what we hoped would come from this event all along. Unfortunately, once the public came to the outrageous conclusion that we had staged something hostile, and that the McSA was encouraging dialogue while somehow SHIFT was not, I realized that the misunderstanding that we have here is due to more than just a simple difference of opinion.

We did not draw stick figures labeled as the prophet Muhammad around campus — and then invoke the freedom of speech so that we could evade criticism. We drew stick figures labeled as the prophet Muhammad around campus in order to express the importance of the freedom of speech as well as to express our growing concern that we have allowed, as a society, for that particular freedom be compromised by this figure. Now, there are questions to be posed here. Why this one exception? What has caused the collective taboo surrounding its depiction? What does it predict about the future of free speech in America? What is the true nature of political correctness, and for what reasons would it be acceptable or unacceptable to not apply it to any given situation? What is freedom of expression in the first place, and especially without the freedom to offend? These are all questions that we had hoped we could discuss properly, campus-wide, altogether, this weekend — rather than aggressively, separately, and anonymously on the Internet, and we are deeply saddened that this particular objective has been overlooked. But I do believe that these misunderstandings are surmountable, and I hope that everyone has been proceeding through this blog entry with an open mind.

Yes, there are other ways to promote the freedom of expression, admittedly. But please do not overlook our other objective, which was to establish a solidarity with the secular groups from the other two campuses who have done this exact same thing already in the name of free speech. The only way to induce a societal shift in thinking is to start with small, local protests such as these, and to ensure that no group stands alone. Yes, the Muslim students in our community have taken offense to this particular exercise of free speech. However, they also understand the justifications behind our actions, and have handled the situation with incredible maturity given the circumstances. We have already stated on various occasions that the population of peaceable Muslims on campus clearly have no control over the threats that certain Islamic fundamentalist groups issue to cartoonists. That being said, I cannot fathom why anyone would think that this act was directed toward our Muslim community. Again, I must reiterate that we are all equal participants in this community, and no individual group was the "target" of our statement. The statement was for everyone, hence the campus-wide accessibility of our drawings and flyers, and the neutral, unembellished stick figures that we'd hoped would shift the focus away from religion and back toward free expression. We apologize sincerely for that message getting lost in translation, and we hope that you will all come to a common understanding as to what was intended, what was expected, and what should come next.

For those of you who have read all of SHIFT's official statements since the inception of this whole ordeal, who clearly understand our motivation, and yet, still maintain that we have wronged the Northwestern community with our actions, that is a perfectly acceptable opinion to have. We only ask that no one regards our actions as hateful, because that would be the most regrettable misconception of them all. SHIFT stands for Secular Humanism, and as secular humanists, we uphold a duty to protect one of our most fundamental rights as humans, the freedom of expression — for all. Some would argue that our actions, not our intentions, are what matter. I would argue that until one considers the intention behind an action, that action cannot be fully understood. We are not cruel, mean-spirited people. We are simply a group of individuals, united by a common purpose and a set of values that called for action on this particular issue.

That being said, I implore you all to join us at our open discussion this Sunday. And feel free to express yourselves! Details can be found on the Facebook event. Hope to see you all there!

Cassy Byrne
President of SHIFT
(Secular Humanists for Inquiry & FreeThought)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Official SHIFT Statement on the Chalking events of 5/9

On April 14th, the satirical comedy show South Park aired its 200th episode; a feat which the creators of the show, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, celebrated by writing the following premise: Fed up with the offensive jokes, all of the celebrity figures that South Park has satirized in past episodes rise up and decide to collectively sue the town. (To hear the two creators themselves expressing their thoughts behind the premise, as well as about the controversy that follows, you can watch this interview.) One of these influential figures they decided to use for this episode was the prophet Muhammad.

If you are unfamiliar either with the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy or with the 2004 Dutch filmmaker assassination, it would behoove you to read this article which touches on both incidents. The reason why these incidents incited such heated controversy is because the Islamic faith considers depictions — any depictions, whether positive, negative, or neutral — of the prophet Muhammad as blasphemous (more specifically, it's idolatry). Now, as I understand it, blasphemy is only truly blasphemous to those who believe in the claims purported by the respective religious doctrine, and yet somehow, these aforementioned depictions of Muhammad were met with intimidation, death threats, as well as with actual violence. And since these events took place, it seems as though the playing field has changed.

South Park had previously aired an episode back in 2001 entitled "Super Best Friends," in which the prophet Muhammad (alongside other religious figures such as Jesus Christ, Krishna, and Buddha) was plainly depicted, interacting with other religious figures and doing ridiculous, "South Park"-esque things. (A clip from that episode is incorporated into the interview posted above.) No extraordinary ramifications followed this broadcast. However, South Park's 200th episode (the more recent one, which mocked the controversy itself of depicting Muhammad) did not directly reveal Muhammad's image at all, and yet resulted in terrified warnings from their network Comedy Central, as well as in threats of violence from certain Islamic fundamentalist groups.

The 201st episode (which aired one week later, on April 21st) was the second part of this two-part intrigue. In it, every mention of the name Muhammad was replaced with a bleep, and his image was also censored. While it seemed likely from watching the episode that the censorship had been done deliberately to further the creators' intended message about censorship, Parker and Stone have since issued a public statement that it was not "some meta-joke" on their part, and that Comedy Central made an executive decision to add its own censorship to the original creation (in the form of additional bleeps). Now, both the 200th and 201st episodes (as well as "Super Best Friends") have been pulled from the South Park studio website.

The important thing to note here is that it is not a network policy (or a law) to refrain from broadcasting depictions of the prophet Muhammad. The point of the matter is that we have allowed, as a culture, for intimidation and fear-mongering to compromise our freedom of expression. When threats of violence are made and are taken seriously, the intimidated party renders the intimidating party more powerful. That was Parker and Stone's initial point, and, whether or not Comedy Central went ahead and proved it by censoring the episode, a collective secular student group uprising has been the result.

At the University of Illinois, the secular student group AAF (Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers) decided to show their support for Parker and Stone by drawing stick figures around campus and labeling them as "Muhammad." (For pictures of the event and an official statement from the group itself, you can read their blogpost.) Because they received such a backlash from the Muslim community on their campus, this past week the AAF sent out a mass e-mail to all of the student groups in the nation affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance (which includes SHIFT), imploring everyone to act similarly on his/her own campus, so that we may establish a solidarity among secular students for free expression, and in doing so, rebuke the power that we have given to fear-mongerers wherever we have allowed needless censorship. Thus far, the University of Wisconsin has followed suit (a very interesting reaction resulted from the Muslim community at their campus, actually; you can read about it here), but it will take a lot more than two (and now, three) groups to achieve the desired solidarity.

This is why SHIFT has chalked Northwestern's campus: to support both the AAF and South Park, as well as to facilitate an open discussion about censorship and political correctness (which is scheduled for this Sunday at 4 PM in the Shepard piano lounge). The main reason why this event was so forthrightly performed is because we felt that it directly reflected SHIFT's purpose. In our mission statement (which can currently be found in its entirety on our Facebook page), one of our objectives is to "safeguard the freedom of expression by opposing censorship." Also, we feel as though standing in solidarity with these individuals/groups who have so far acted in defense of these rights will help to dilute the effects of the unfortunate taboo that surrounds the depiction of Muhammad.

We acknowledge the many speculations regarding the way this action may be perceived by the campus, and we would like to express that our message is not directed to the Muslims in our community. At least, it is not only directed to them. It is directed to society as a whole, to every person who thought twice about the acceptability of this action. The portrayal of Muhammad as a stick figure was purposeful; it was meant to shift the focus away from religion and back to the issue of freedom of expression. If it had been another image (religious or otherwise) that alone was unconscionable to depict, we would have labeled our stick figures accordingly. Again, I feel that I must reiterate: this is not about the validity of religious claims. This is not about the actions on the part of Comedy Central. We feel that the South Park happenstance was only reflective of the true source of this problem: our society is allowing itself to be intimidated into self-censorship, and we must safeguard our freedom of expression, regardless of the chances that our actions might offend. Free speech would be the antithesis of free if there were such regulations on it.

In conclusion, we are most looking forward to the open discussion that is set to follow this event. It is open to the whole of campus, and we hope you come to express yourselves on the issue of freedom of expression, on political correctness, as well as on this expression in particular. (Or any other interesting questions you think these topics pique.) Again, here are the details of the discussion:

Sunday (5/16) at 4 PM
in the Shepard piano lounge

And please, RSVP to the Facebook event so we know how many people to expect!

Join us!!

Cassy Byrne
President of SHIFT
(Secular Humanists for Inquiry & FreeThought)