In the age of advertisements and billboards, almost no public space is devoid of banners, announcements, or commercials. In New York City, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, a fiery dispute over a series of controversial ads posted on various municipal transportation vehicles and metro stations has developed into a full scale marketing war — and even more trouble is brewing. Some of the public transportation in the three metropolises recently featured an advertisement that reads “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, Defeat jihad.”
In the fall of 2011, The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and its leader Pamela Geller attempted to run this advertisement on New York City buses, but ran into immediate resistance from the New York Metro Transit Authority (MTA). According to an article in Time Magazine, the MTA rejected the ads on the grounds that the advertisements “violated its rule against posting ‘images on information that demean…on account of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry.’”
Not to be deterred, Geller sued, citing the right to free speech and “arguing that by not putting up the ad, the MTA was taking sides on a political issue” (Time). After a period of litigation, the courts validated Geller’s arguments and ordered the MTA to run the ads — which they did, starting on September 24 (albeit with a disclaimer stating that the MTA does not share the opinions expressed by its advertisements).
Geller also signed a contract to run the same ad in Washington D.C. from September 24 through October 21 and met similar opposition from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). This time, the transit authority invoked recent world events and mentioned concern for the safety of its passengers as justification.
After Geller pursued legal action once more, the WMATA defended itself by saying that “it was advised by the Department of Homeland Security to review the ads because they risked inciting violence in the wake of Middle East protests set off by an anti-Islamic video produced in California” (Time). Even though Judge Rosemary Collyer believed that the advertisements were “hate speech,” she condemned the WMATA to the same fate as New York’s MTA — they were required to run the ads.
As it turned out, the fiasco was just getting started. Commuters and casual observers plastered some of the ads with Post-It Notes in protest, and counter-ads have been put up by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that display a peaceful-sounding message and implicitly decry the original ads as hateful. Representative Mike Honda (D-Calif) has called for a boycott of the Washington metro system, accusing the advertisement of crossing the fine line between free speech and hate speech.
What does the advertisement actually say? Despite media headlines blaming the ad of equating Muslims to savages, the wording clearly directs the harsh adjective at that those who support and engage in jihad (the pursuit of violence in the name of Islam). Some would appeal to the literal translation of jihad (“struggle”) and accuse the ad of producing a blanket statement that targets all Muslims who engage in peaceful, spiritual struggle. However, since the advertisement refers explicitly to violence (war), this argument is fatuous — it’s clear that the ad directs its message at those who “struggle” to destroy other human beings on behalf of their extreme interpretation of Islamic law.
It isn’t socially taboo to label ruthless acts of murder (or even lesser crimes) that occur daily on domestic soil as “savage,” so why should the unrelenting attacks on Israel’s civilian population by jihadists receive more lenient verbal treatment? They certainly should not. People from all religions, nationalities, and cultures are capable of savage behavior — behavior that must be sought out and soundly condemned.
If the perpetrator happens to be Muslim, however, we are afraid to call it out and afraid to discuss it. We are afraid of offending other Muslims, even those that share only a common religion with the transgressors. Geller clarifies that her ad “is asking people to oppose those who commit jihad attacks against innocent civilians, and those who celebrate the attackers as heroes. All jihad terrorists are Muslims, but not all Muslims are jihad terrorists. So why should any Muslim who opposes jihad feel his character impugned?” (Huffington Post)
Nevertheless, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations around the country expressed strong disapproval of the ads, demonstrating that the negative response is truly collective and indiscriminate. The swift social backlash aimed at the advertisement brings us to a very important and frightening realization: America is obsessed with political correctness.
We strive to enforce political correctness in classrooms, election campaigns, public speeches, literature, and film. We are quick to invoke this agreeable, refined term to show our sophistication and genuine concern for those potentially slighted by our comments. However, the origins of this expression may be revelatory, and even shocking.
According to a short documentary created by The Free Congress Foundation entitled “The History of Political Correctness,” the concept was born in the early 20th century out of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (colloquially known as The Frankfurt School) — a communist think tank in post-World War I Germany.
After traditional Marxist theory failed to generate a large-scale uprising among the European working class, prominent Marxists believed that the blame should fall on Western culture and its troublesome free-thinking ideologies. In response, young Marxist scholars assembled at The Frankfurt School to develop methods of combating Western culture and thus ensuring the proliferation of communism throughout Western Europe.
According to the Marxist visionaries, the biggest threat to the spread of Communism was the prevalent cultural acceptance of free thought in the Western world — individualism of any flavor is the kryptonite of the Marxist ideological agenda.
The most natural solution, then, was to annihilate the individual point of view by instituting a “correct” mode of expression — one that prohibits intellectual freedom on a personal scale and permits only ideas generated and approved by the masses. Thus, The Frankfurt School became “the vehicle that translated Marxism from economic into cultural terms, giving us what we now know as political correctness.” In other words, the theory of political correctness emerged from a deeply Marxist desire for the wholesale censorship of intellectual and cultural individualism.
Surprised? Many would be, considering that political correctness is such an acoustically pleasing and outwardly benign expression. Of course, we may contend that the modern application of this practice has shifted dramatically from a flagrant agenda of suppression to a respectful defense of people’s emotions. However, it seems that political correctness has not only retained an undercurrent of its former censorship, but has been slowly eroding the freedom of expression we enjoy in the United States and providing a popular avenue to evade the real problems we are facing.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, agrees that the spiritual meaning of jihad is a “wonderful teaching” if applied correctly, but he laments that “most Muslims understand the obligation of jihad to require them to go out to war on behalf of Islam. The attempt to deny that this is the operative meaning of jihad is an example of really dangerous political correctness, because it constitutes an unwillingness to confront the reality that Islam has a violent tendency, and that’s the tendency that’s being manifested, that’s being espoused, that’s being promoted today.”
We insist on upholding personal freedoms, yet we flinch at the first instance of their manifestation. If people are fearful that a completely lawful advertisement condemning a murderous, violent radical sect will enflame the tempers of other Muslims, then it is not presence of the ad we should be worrying about. Our inclination to don a disguise of mutual respect and peaceful discourse has been taken to the extreme — we are content to discredit the voices that condemn radical Islam and stamp them as divisive and hateful, but we fail to address the real issues at hand.
Calling Pamela Geller an ignorant anti-Muslim crusader spewing vitriolic and acrimonious rhetoric will make us all feel better. Dismissing her advertisements as hate speech will allow us to sleep at night, knowing that we have not offended anyone with our words. However, it won’t stop rockets from pounding Israeli towns and it won’t stop jihadists from dancing in the streets, celebrating the murder of Jews and chanting “death to Israel.” If we have any desire to stop the bloodshed, the first step is to start talking about it frankly, blatantly, and honestly.