At one point, I had made a joke about dressing up as Osama bin Laden, or perhaps as a Taliban Mullah, for Halloween. I could walk around with a stick and yell at women whose ankles were showing. I know that’s blending in aspects of the Saudi Arabian religious police, but I thought it might be passable as good humor given that I’d be mocking the people that, by their actions, mock the religious system they claim to profess. Of course, common sense prevailed and I shelved the idea as just being way too soon, especially in New York City, where a decade is likely not enough to erase the pain of loss that many experienced on September 11th, 2001.
For just a moment tonight, on the Q train in Brooklyn heading into Manhattan, I was surprised to see that someone hadn’t exercised the same level of judgment I had, and even worse, had gone beyond what I’d intended and had instead put on a costume that would mock an entire religion, rather than just “bad guys”.
Somewhere around Sheepshead Bay, a guy and his friends got on. The guy was wearing traditional Arab Muslim clothing. Or at least, sort of. He had the kufi (?, long shirt), brimless cap, cotton pants and the sandals, but he wasn’t wearing them quite right. The cap was way too small for him and the pants were rolled up, but not to above the ankles. I don’t imagine he was too concerned about the details, but if you’re going to be a jackass, you might as well do it right.
He was laughing and joking with his friends and passing around a bottle of vodka on the train. I heard them mocking the burqa, and commenting that the man’s female companion should have dressed up like a whore. I heard the guy yell, “Kill the white people! Kill, kill, kill, kill them all! [laughing] … Kill, kill, kill, kill…” Another time, he said, “I’ve got a bomb! Hit the deck!”
The situation was absurd to the point of being slightly surreal. At what point does it become ok to turn free speech into hate speech, to degrade and disrespect an entire culture, just because you don’t agree with some elements of that culture? And by elements, I mean some segments of the society, not elements that pervade the whole. Violence perpetrated by Islamist groups is a problem, yes, but there are violent fools in every culture and we don’t claim them as representative and use them as justification for generalized insults.
Would it be OK for a person to dress as Jesus (I say Jesus, because his iconic look is the only recognized ‘Christian’ appearance) for Halloween and laugh and joke about blowing up buildings (Timothy McVeigh) and killing “niggers” (KKK)? Would it be ok for a person to dress like a Jew for Halloween and laugh and joke about blowing apart Arab children with cluster bombs and white phosphorous, or starving people into capitulating (IDF)? Would it be OK to dress as a Buddhist monk and then joke about using nerve gas in subway systems (Aum Shinrikyo)? Or, to take it off the religious track and focus on the mockery of ethnicity, would it be OK for a person to dress up as a Negro Slave for Halloween?
Some things are funny and some things aren’t. Just because we possess freedom of speech in the United States doesn’t mean we should toss the concept of appropriateness out the window and ‘say’ whatever we want. We should still have some self-moderation and not generate what is essentially racist hate speech because we’re too stupid to understand the more complex realities in other parts of the world, and too lazy to find out.
Hey bro, I hope no one urinates in your beer tonight, but you deserve it.