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!