Dr. Onkar Ghate is a senior fellow and the Chief Content Officer at the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written and lectured extensively on philosophy and serves as Dean for the Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center in Irvine, CA. The Undercurrent’s Jon Glatfelter had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Ghate regarding the recent shooting at the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, as well as religion and free speech more broadly.
The Undercurrent: Many of the major U.S. media players, including CNN and FOX, still have not published the cartoon contest’s winning piece. Why do you think that is?
Dr. Ghate: I haven’t kept tabs on which outlets have and have not published that cartoon, but there were similar responses in regard to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and, before that, the Danish cartoons in 2005-2006. Sometimes a media outlet would try to explain why it is not showing its audience a crucial element of the news story, and I think these explanations have revealed a mixture of motives at work.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list: fear, cowardice, appeasement, sympathy. Let me say a word on each. Some media outlets are afraid of violent reprisals and of the ongoing security costs that would be necessary to protect staff. And because the U.S. government refuses to take an unequivocal stand in defense of the right to free speech, the totalitarians are emboldened, which makes violent reprisals more likely. So that’s one reason. But despite this legitimate fear, I do think there is often an element of cowardice. The likelihood of an attack can be overstated, and of course if more news outlets publish the cartoons, it is more and more difficult to intimidate and attack them all, and less and less likely that a particular organization will be singled out. Here there is strength in numbers. A third motive is the appeaser’s false hope that if he gives in and doesn’t publish the cartoons, he will have satisfied the attackers and no further threats or demands will follow. Finally, many are sympathetic: out of deference to the non-rational, faith-based emotions of Muslims, they don’t publish the cartoons, even though those cartoons are news. They view the cartoonists and publishers as the troublemakers and villains. (The roots of this sympathy I think are complex and often ugly.)
The Undercurrent: Some have condemned the contest’s organizer, Pamela Geller, and the winning artist, Bosch Fawstin. They say there’s a world of difference between good-natured free expression and malicious speech intended solely to antagonize. What do you think?
Dr. Ghate: I disagree with many things that I’ve heard Pamela Gellar say but I refuse to discuss her real or alleged flaws when totalitarians are trying to kill her, as though those flaws, even if real, justify or mitigate the actions of the aspiring killers. The New York Times editorial to which you link is a disgrace. After a sanctimonious paragraph saying that we all have the right to publish offensive material and that no matter how offensive that material may be, it does not justify murder, the rest of the editorial goes on to criticize the victim of attempted murder. As my colleague and others have noted, this is like denouncing a rape victim instead of her rapists.
And notice what the editorial glosses over: in the first paragraph stating that offensive material does not justify murder, it concludes with the seemingly innocuous point that “it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.”
This is the actual issue. Why don’t you similarly have to tell a group of biochemists or historians, when they disagree about a theory, that their disagreements don’t justify murdering each other? The answers lies in the difference between reason and faith, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, a difference the editorial dares not discuss.
But contra the editorial, the Garland event had a serious purpose. Look at the winning cartoon: it makes a serious point.