Je suis Charlie
Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) became an international motto after the attack on Charlie Hebdo

Freedom of speech becomes deadly

| When terrorists forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris to slaughter the editor and four notable cartoonists, it set off near universal condemnation and some thoughtful commentary on freedom of speech. It also set off waves of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant fervor in far too many places around the world.

In the US we give great lip service to the concept of freedom of speech; it is enshrined in the first amendment to the Constitution. But while we talk about it a lot, we don't always practice what we preach. Too often we act as though freedom of speech means, "I can say whatever I want, and you are free to say whatever you want, as long as I agree with it." Think about the graduation speakers that have been dis-invited to speak at commencement ceremonies. Think about all the circumlocutions and euphemisms we go through to avoid offending anyone who might hear or read what we say (commonly referred to as being "PC" — politically correct). This amounts to self-censorship. So the ringing endorsements of free speech, coming at least from Americans, smack of hypocrisy.

Bill Clinton put it very well during a symposium at his presidential library, calling our tendency to exist in intellectual ghettoes a form of bigotry: "America has come so far. We are less sexist, racist and homophobic than we used to be. Our only remaining bigotry is we cannot abide being around or listening to somebody we disagree with" (Washington Post, Nov 17, 2014).

Man holding a Charlie Hebdo front page
Demonstrator holding a Charlie Hebdo front page with the headline "Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists," saying "it's hard to be loved by idiots"

There's a difference between what you can say and what you should say, and that difference is a blurry gray line, not some bright, absolute demarcation. Context is everything. Moreover you can't legislate good judgment.

The editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo took price in goring everyone's ox; no one got a free pass. Some of the most incendiary things they published had to do with Mohammed, particularly cartoon images of Mohammed. After Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon in 2011 showing Mohammed and the words: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”, their offices were firebombed.

The attacks — the firebombing, the stabbing of a filmmaker, the fatwa against Salmun Rushdie, etc — come from Muslim fundamentalists who are punishing what they consider blasphemy against Mohammed.

It's understandable that many people assume that the extremism of the Islamists reflects the core beliefs of Islam. But Fareed Zacharia (Washington Post, Jan 8, 2015) makes the point that blasphemy is not even mentioned in the Quran and that Mohammed himself was kind and understanding to those who did not believe with him:

They [the Paris terrorists] followed in the path of other terrorists who have bombed newspaper offices, stabbed a filmmaker and killed writers and translators, all to mete out what they believe is the proper Koranic punishment for blasphemy. But in fact, the Koran prescribes no punishment for blasphemy. Like so many of the most fanatical and violent aspects of Islamic terrorism today, the idea that Islam requires that insults against the prophet Muhammad be met with violence is a creation of politicians and clerics to serve a political agenda.

On several occasions, Muhammad treated people who ridiculed him and his teachings with understanding and kindness. “In Islam,” [Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin] Khan says, “blasphemy is a subject of intellectual discussion rather than a subject of physical punishment.”

Washington Post, Jan 8, 2015

All of this raises the question, Which speech is worthy of defending the right to say it? Russ Douhat, writing in the New York Times, proposes three principles of free speech:

1) The right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order.

2) There is no duty to blaspheme, a society's liberty is not proportional to the quantity of blasphemy it produces, and under many circumstances the choice to give offense (religious and otherwise) can be reasonably criticized as pointlessly antagonizing, needlessly cruel, or simply stupid.

3) The legitimacy and wisdom of criticism directed at offensive speech is generally inversely proportional to the level of mortal danger that the blasphemer brings upon himself.‚Äč

Russ Douhat, New York Times, Jan 7, 2015

He then goes on to say:

Is it worth my life to say this?
Is this cartoon really worth my life? (Stuart Carlson)

But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society's greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn't really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn't depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it's okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that's when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.

So, if you are attacking someone's sacred cow, and you might be killed because of your attack, that's the kind of free speech that needs to be protected most.

There are some who get very queasy about making fun of sacred cows (AKA satire), and they start to talk about being "responsible" and "prudent." Underlying this is a measure of "blame the victim." Put crassly, you would say, Well, they [Charlie Hebdo] deserved what they got because they were provocative. But they have also poked fun at Catholics, and the Cardinals of Rome haven't showed up with AK-47s.

Not in my name
Not in my name!

By and large, the people killed by these Islamist extremists are other Muslims. And whenever an event like this occurs, you will hear people lament, "Well, why don't the Muslims denounce this violence?"

Well, the fact is that other prominent Muslims often do denounce such attacks, but we may not be aware that they have because we've chosen to get our news from outlets that agree with us. Reality is just so inconvenient!

As you might expect, editorial cartoonists have had a lot to say about the killing of cartoonists.

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Last updated on May 11, 2016

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