Time to expose hate messages for what they are

2 October 2012

With ''savage'' freedom comes ''civilised'' responsibility.

The word ''savage'' has made a comeback. Pro-Israel posters were recently plastered on San Francisco buses and on New York subway walls proclaiming: ''In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.''

You know the ad crossed into heinous territory when Fox News censored it, despite one of the ad's sponsors, conservative US blogger Pamela Geller, being a network darling. Even the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York dissociated itself from the ad, despite its ''unwavering support of Israel''. ''We find the ad's content to be decidedly prejudiced and dangerously inflammatory,'' a statement read.

The situation climaxed last week in an altercation between Mona Eltahawy, the prominent Egyptian-American activist and recent Sydney Writers' Festival guest, and Pamela Hall, one of the ad's supporters, who filmed Eltahawy spray-painting the ad.

While Eltahawy's actions have been written off by some as a publicity stunt, she's not the first to respond, with New York activists placing ''Racist'' and ''Hate speech'' stickers on the posters.

Not since the distinguished yarns of Rudyard Kipling has it seemed acceptable to equate human beings with savagery - untamed, uncivilised and subhuman. Yet this is exactly what the ad does, siphoning a quote from Ayn Rand, who in 1979 famously declared: ''If you mean whose side should we be on: Israel or the Arabs? I would certainly say Israel because it's the advanced, technological, civilised country amidst a group of almost totally primitive savages.''

Given that Geller's blog is called Atlas Shrugs - a nod to Rand's classic novel Atlas Shrugged - the connection is hardly tenuous.

Geller, who heads the American Freedom Defence Initiative, cried free speech when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority initially refused to run the ''demeaning'' ad. Rather than revise it, Geller sued the MTA and the Federal District Court ruled it was an act of free speech under the First Amendment, saying not only is it ''protected speech - it is core political speech''.

Yet, instead of simply stating a pro-Israel political position, the ad refers to Arabs as savages - throwing in that old calling card of fundamentalism, ''jihad'', for good measure - no doubt intended to capitalise on growing tensions across the Muslim world on the back of an offensive film depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

There are no shades of grey to this. But putting aside the very substantial issue of territorial occupation, it's neither acceptable nor ''civilised'' to advertise hatred and diminish one's humanity based on politics - or anything else.

As one tweeter wrote: ''In NYC, we speak 140 languages and hate isn't one of them.''

The MTA apparently intends to revise its guidelines to avoid future occurrences of blatant prejudice. Let's hope they do. After all, the issue at stake, beyond the genuine sensibilities of human beings, is how long we can hang offensive and demeaning arguments on a ''freedom of speech'' peg.

Amal Awad is a journalist and author. Amro Ali is a PhD scholar in the Department of Government and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Sarah Stock, 9114 0748, 0419 278 715,