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)

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