Back at the beginning of my TV career, in Cleveland local news, on-camera minority reporters were few and far between. Our business was just discovering the imperative of diversity. We had just one on our staff, a guy named Peter. Pete taught me a lesson that I’ve remembered through the decades.
The KKK was having a gathering in Cleveland, and, for some ridiculous reason, Pete was assigned to cover it. Pro that he was, he went to the event and ended up doing an interview with the grand dragon. Happily, the cameraman made sure to stay in a two-shot as the Klan guy described blacks as “beasts of burden” and “mules.” Imagine the impact of the image on the screen: Pete’s placid demeanor as he held the mike without outwardly reacting to the racist pig’s spewed hatred. It was a profoundly effective condemnation of bigotry.
Sadly, it is not the way most of us usually react to deeply offensive attacks. Take the gratuitously malignant cartoons that the French magazine Charlie Hebdo routinely publishes ridiculing Islamic and other religions’ sensibilities in the most juvenile, gross ways. Of course, we know that violent assassins presenting themselves as Muslim extremists launched a murderous attack in response to the cartoons depicting Muhammad. They killed a dozen people and spawned other fatal assaults.
Millions of us, to show our support for discussing ideas in an unrestricted way, quickly embraced the mantra “Je Suis Charlie” (“I Am Charlie”). But I want to change that to say “Je suis libre expression” (“I am free expression”), since after thinking about it, I don’t want to be associated with a publication or other performer who often trivializes the whole principle of open discussion with gratuitously offensive depictions of that which people hold sacred. They do it strictly for shock value and to add to the bottom line.
Pardon the cliche, but I can despise what they say while defending to the death their right to say it. In this case, of course, death came to those who had decided to regularly cross the bad taste line — at the hands of murderous fanatics who crossed civilization’s line to indulge their own twisted protector-of-the-faith fantasies.
Predictably, Islamaphobes everywhere were then sent into their own frenzies, as they used the unspeakable attacks to reinforce their long-held bigotry. They pointed out that millions of Muslims admit that they sympathize with the assailants or least understand what motivated them.
This is sad, because there is no justification for impeding the articulation of ideas, no matter how objectionable. Period. But the belief that somehow religion is set apart is not limited to Muslims. The pope himself has weighed in when he told reporters: “You can’t provoke. You can’t insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.” If, for instance, said the pontiff, “someone speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to be punched.”
I’ve never publically contradicted a pope before, but, Your Holiness, you are flat-out wrong. In a free society, you can insult the faith of others. Without being punched or, by extension, killed. It may be juvenile, it may be crude, it may be outrageously anti-social, but it’s allowed and in a perverse way celebrated even by those of us who, in our own conversation, try to adhere to loose rules of civilized discourse. Cheap shots are the tactics of fools, but being a fool is not a capital crime. Unfortunately, there are those homicidal zealots who might get the wrong message from the pope’s words, that violence is somehow justified, and frankly, he should have known that.
Usually, the most devastating response to obnoxiousness is no response. That’s the lesson my colleague Pete taught me, and it should guide all of us.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.