Eugene Volokh has an interesting post about the comparison between flag burning and the Muhammed caricatures. I agree with him that anyone who thinks that there should be an amendment banning flag burning but supports freedom of expression to print caricatures of Muhammed that inflame Muslims is being inconsistent. I would go even further than perhaps he would, however, and say that those who freak out over flag burning are engaging in very much the same kind of thinking that many Muslims are in the case of the caricatures – I’m offended and therefore this should be banned, or, in some cases, I’m offended and therefore I get to beat you up or kill you.
When someone says that they would beat someone up for burning a flag – and I’m sure we’ve all heard such bluster many times – they are thinking and behaving just like the folks who are threatening people for printing caricatures of Muhammed. People who freak out over the “desecration” of symbols are thinking at the most simplistic, visceral, childish level one can think at, which is to say that they are barely thinking at all, they are reacting with virtually no thought at all.
I feel the same way about other types of offensive art. Serrano’s “Piss Christ” did not offend me and would not offend me even if I was a Christian because all it represents is one person’s view. Is their view wrong? Fine. Most people’s views on most things are wrong every day. You don’t have to agree with them, and in fact you don’t have to listen to them at all – you’re a free person with every right to walk away and ignore them.
I think a distinction needs to be made between someone desecrating or dehumanizing a person and doing so to an idea or a symbol. That’s the difference between, for example, burning a flag and Fred Phelps’ gang of loonies showing up at someone’s funeral and holding up a sign saying they deserved to die because they were a “fag”. Desecrating a person is one thing, a terrible thing indeed; desecrating a symbol or an idea is quite another. The trouble is that some people cannot separate themselves from their beliefs. They define themselves not as a person but as a vessel in which God and country reside, so that any criticism of God or country is an attack on them personally. But that kind of thinking prevents us from making the distinctions necessary to survive in a world where the vast majority of people do not share our sense of either religion or patriotism.