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Our sensitivities have eroded freedom of speech

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Joe Wos

For centuries, cartoonists have been drawing fire on the front lines of freedom.

In 1871, the corrupt Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall said, “I don’t care what they say about me in the papers, but stop those damn cartoons!”

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Samuel Pennypacker passed the 1903 anti-cartoon law and shared his opinion of cartoonists: “In England a century ago, the offender would have been drawn and quartered and his head stuck upon a pole outside the gates.”

On Jan. 7, terrorists murdered 12 people, including five cartoonists, at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, thus assuring the artists’ legacy would live on for at least three days as the Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie. For days, the media referenced the pen being mightier than the sword and celebrated its role as protector of #freespeech.

Now, a few weeks later, it’s #shortmemory.

In America, the cartoon website cagle.com has been under cyber attack. The website shutdowns have gone largely unnoticed by the media.

These attacks share the same motivation: Stop those damn cartoons.

Terrorists are not the only ones without a sense of humor.

Following the Paris attacks, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, condemned the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He expressed solidarity with the terrorists on at least one point: “What they object to is being intentionally insulted over the course of many years. On this aspect, I am in total agreement with them.” He also blamed the editor for having a role in his own death.

Pittsburgh isn’t immune to religion-induced humor deficiency disorder.

The Pittsburgh Jewish Federation fires off a letter every time someone eats a falafel at Conflict Kitchen and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh got its rosaries in a bunch over a costume worn by a CMU student.

If a rabbi and a priest were to walk into a bar, it would be to write a letter to the editor over a cartoon about a rabbi and a priest walking into a bar.

American cartoonists know the danger in poking fun at religious extremist groups … and vegans. Sometimes, the real threat isn’t terrorists, or hellfire and brimstone, but a fear of being labeled insensitive, intolerant or politically incorrect.

Labeling is a powerful tool in the arsenal of those destroying free speech: intolerant, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, racist and a list of “ists” that inhibit other “ists” like cartoonists and humorists. Sometimes labels are a justified defense against a real threat, and other times sensitive types just don’t like being mocked.

Our nation’s sensitivity has chipped away at freedom of speech.

Criticize the policies of Israel and you’re anti-Semitic. Mention that Muslim terrorists are, in fact, Muslim and you are intolerant and racist and probably hate puppies, too. Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists. Some are cartoonists. You decide which is worse.

It’s time for cartoonists to draw the line. In this war to protect free speech, people are going to be offended. Feelings will get hurt and ink will be spilled. But no one ever will stop those damn cartoons.

Joe Wos, a cartoonist, writer and pop culture correspondent for WESA Essential Pittsburgh, lives in Penn Hills.

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