This, I predict, will be an unpopular post.
Yelling “fire!” into this microphone: not free speech.
Few events in recent memory have brought such universal calls of immediate condemnation as Wednesday’s massacre of cartoonists and staff from the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. As a pacifist, I join the world in condemning these horrible acts of violence and murder.
It is worth noting that the fact that people feel the need to open their articles and reflections on this event with such condemnation despite its universal obviousness speaks to a certain widely felt paranoia in the realm of journalism, blogging, and writing of all sorts. The presumption seems to be that anyone who would offer any perspective in addition to endless outrage or sadness about these events – offering up any nuance, lessons, or further reflections on the massacre and its origins – is a stone’s throw away from being lambasted as a closet terrorist. And indeed, our society is structured to be “with us or against us” in the post-9/11 rabbit hole, a deliberate tactic to stifle dissent or even critical thinking about an increasingly draconian state at war with its own shadow. I’m sure I will feel impelled several times throughout this post to remind everyone that I find the murders abhorrent, that I am not justifying the murder, that I do not believe in the death penalty for cartooning (or indeed, for anything, including murder and treason).
What I find discouraging about the response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo is how quick everyone has been to defend the magazine’s actions, even to stand with them to the point of saying that they are, literally, Charlie Hebdo. I know murder is galvanizing, even canonizing, to the victims, but it is a small vocal minority that points out that Hebdo and its cartooning staff in particular were crass and offensive, if not overtly racist. There certainly was a double-standard between criticizing Islam and criticizing Judaism, wherein people were fired for alleged anti-Semitism but allowed to flout the most holy standards surrounding the holiest person in Islam, using a blasphemous image to decry everyone in that religion. It’s hard to even imagine what the reaction would be were a similar level of insult levied at a Western-World-approved religion, especially Judaism. And say what you will about the history of anti-Semitism that France has to be guarded against – isn’t that kind of exactly the cultural context and sensitivity to offense that the proponents of so-called free speech are trying to guard against?
I say so-called free speech because the argument that has been lost in all of this, the argument that will be the central thesis of this post, is that Charlie Hebdo‘s offensive cartoons were not protected as free speech and should not be considered within the bounds of that most sacred of Western liberal democracy values. I feel like I may need to repeat this since nothing has been more universal than the repeated utterance of the idea that this magazine’s publication and the slaughter of its staff are free speech issues. They’re not. The cartoons went beyond the realm of free speech.
You see, free speech is not, and never has been, and really shouldn’t be, say whatever you want. Traditionally, that standard was called license, something reviled in traditional liberal democratic theory as something wanton, anarchic, and for those who don’t think about their principles very much. There are countless exceptions to free speech standards and statutes everywhere. The most famously touted, though possibly least significant in terms of actual practical exact application, is yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. Free speech does not protect your ability to yell fire in a crowded theater because doing so is harmful to the society as a whole, likely to cause a stampede of theater patrons that results in unnecessary death. It is dishonest speech, manipulative speech, speech that predictably ends in violence and bitter resentment. I think you can see where I’m going with this argument. Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons were deliberately and wantonly inflammatory. They served no social good, no valid political message (unless hate-speech, something banned in many quarters of liberal democracies, is now considered valid political speech), and were intended to push the envelope for the pure sake of enraging a portion of the population.
Critical, vital reminder: people do not deserve to die for violating or overstepping free speech standards. They should not have been killed. The killings were abhorrent.
There are other myriad exceptions to free speech as well, speech that, when shouted from the rooftops, is not protected and is highly illegal. One can not advocate the violent overthrow of the standing government. One cannot make specific threats of violence against any person or group of people. One cannot publicly, with a wide audience, lie about the actions or behaviors of another person. One cannot willfully defame another person through the use of falsehoods or misleading statements. These are all universal or nearly universal exceptions to free speech that instead go by names like treason, threats, slander, and fraud. No one would stand up and defend people committing these acts and create the hashtag #IAmTheDeathThreatener or #IAmSlanderer. Even if they were killed, presumably. And yet defamation of a whole class of people through something misleading is pretty much exactly the standard upheld by Charlie Hebdo. The only reason that people are uniting with and defending this message, other than the rush to sanctify the recently murdered, is because it is seen as “okay” to bash Islam and its adherents in modern Western culture.
Which brings me to the other grossly misapplied use of the Free Speech Flag in recent Western culture and social media, so recently trotted out before this as to make the whole scene appear to have a surrealy orchestrated quality. Which, of course, is the film The Interview, a movie advocating the assassination of a sitting leader of a foreign country. Oh yes, sure, it’s an entertainment too, and a farce perhaps, and a vehicle for bad jokes and racism against all of North Korea and its people to boot. But none of this erases the fact that an actual current leader is depicted, by name and resemblance, as being assassinated and that much of the point of the movie is to get the audience to spend the whole movie rooting for and anticipating his eventual killing. These kinds of depictions are exactly why authors, disingenuously or not, put those little disclaimers at the beginning of books depicting horrible events to fictional characters, stating that no resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is intended. Why? Because it is not free speech to advocate the killing of other living human beings. That is outside the bounds of protected speech. That is punishable speech in all free societies.
And yet, when North Korean agents or bored teenage hackers or irate former employees, whichever it was, infiltrated Sony and hacked the daylights out of them, eventually threatening to bomb theaters if The Interview was released, Facebook’s masses and the media that influence them clamored to call this a free speech issue. The cancelling of The Interview was labeled the biggest calamity to befall free speech in the history of everything, at least until events less than a month later overshadowed them. I was a lone voice in the wilderness pointing out that the intent of the film was clearly to push the envelope as far as it would go and that sometimes, when you try to see exactly how much you can get away with, you don’t. You don’t get away with it. Because it actually tramples free speech and barges headlong into the territory of license, of saying wanton and destructive things just for the sake of that wanton destructiveness, just because you can. And that has never been included in anyone’s definition of free speech, beyond the most ardent libertarians and anarchists.
There are two key rebuttals to this set of arguments that I anticipate: one about satire and the other about making the difficult judgment on the nature of this speech. I really think the latter is super-weak, so let’s start with the one about satire.
It could be argued that both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons are satire and that satire’s business, by its very nature, is to go way beyond normally accepted bounds of speech, to delve into the absurd and outlandish and offensive in order to prove its point. And that, as such, the rules for satire should be bent way beyond those of normal, serious speech.
I have several arguments against this idea, but the first is by analogy. In working with students at Rutgers, I ran into a frequent phenomenon of people making racist remarks in the context of satire, supposedly making fun of those remarks by trotting out the exact same remarks in a sarcastic voice. An actual example was someone (fakely) rebutting an argument that a particular African-American was good at debate by saying “but all Black people are dumb,” voice dripping with sarcasm. I spent some time going on a mission to stamp out this kind of behavior, leading to some extensive and impassioned discussions and even arguments against what I’ve seen in some areas labeled as “hipster racism”. My argument is that no matter how sarcastic or allegedly satirical the speaker is when making that statement, no matter how absurd they think they’re being, they’re still uttering a racist remark that shouldn’t be part of the environment of that team (or, frankly, anywhere in society, but I couldn’t really police that). And that hearing those words, even ironically, does damage to people who have heard those same words not in jest. And that putting that out into society helps perpetuate the negative stereotypes, even if the alleged intent is to make fun of those same stereotypes.
Thus, I think a tremendous amount of supposed satire actually backfires, actually just perpetuates the myths and bigotry laden in whatever mythology or bigotry is allegedly being made fun of. We would be better off without that speech entirely, either through carefully rebutting it or simply disregarding it and making powerful counter-speech that does not attempt to carefully skewer the original speech. Yes, satire is sometimes, even often, an effective weapon against hypocrites and damaging forces in our society. But I think it also often misses the mark, sometimes horribly, and does damage to its original intent, and thus cannot be placed on a pedestal as speech more worthy of protection or immune to critique and censure than any other kind of speech. To be clear, my argument is not that satire should be banned, limited, or uniquely targeted – merely that it should not be deified into a separate, higher class than all other forms of speech.
Additionally, I would argue that The Interview is simply not a work of satire. Granted that I haven’t seen it, so my basis for judgment is somewhat limited, but I would argue that it’s a propaganda piece against North Korea and its leader. While it may not technically be an advocacy piece in favor of the assassination of its leader, I think it’s at least pretty close, and I doubt it does anything to make people sad about a world where Kim Jong-Un has been killed. It’s the kind of movie that, were it released in a Muslim country with the US President named and depicted as the target, would be the instant justification for drone-strikes and possibly full-scale invasion of the society that failed to ban it, with all the collateral deaths of children and innocents that come with it.
Which brings us back to the intent of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Were they mere satire with the aim of lampooning? Or was the intent slightly stronger, more sinister, more aggressive? It certainly seems like the point was to get people to view Muslims negatively, to see them all as hypocrites, to simultaneously blaspheme against their religion and inspire disrespect of followers. Where is the line between satire and hate-speech? And even if you don’t believe in laws against hate-speech, doesn’t it at least seem unwise to sponsor and uphold the vitriolic criticism of a religion when the nation where this stuff is published is bombing Syria and could easily already be considered to be in a culture war against Islam? I know France’s standards of freedom of religion are less robust than those in the United States, as exemplified by their banning of burqas in public, but it’s hard to imagine this being deemed acceptable in targeting any other religious group, cultural group, or race. (Yes, I know a lot has been made about Charlie Hebdo also skewering pedophile priests. That is making fun of specific criminals and their criminal acts, not all priests or all Catholics. It’s categorically different.) And if there’s only one group that’s “okay” to target, that’s not free speech, or at least not a form of it that seems right. It’s just bigotry. And arguably incitement to violence.
Which brings us to the second argument, about who makes the judgment. If there is a line between free speech and license, how do we guard it, how do we call it, who is responsible for putting things on one side of the line or the other? I will grant that this can be tricky, but it’s also interesting that no one seems to bring up this question when the accusation is of treason, slander, defamation, or anti-Semitism. And as much as people will accuse my advocacy in this piece of being illiberal in failing to defend unpleasant or even abhorrent speech, I would choose to turn the tables. I think that by decrying anti-Semitism but defending these Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it is you who is being illiberal in refusing to defend all groups equally. You are conveniently ignoring the power structures present in your society and that it willingly oppresses some groups while championing and defending others. It’s just racism and bias dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of free speech and erring on the side of caution. The history of oppression of the Jewish people in the past in Europe has combined with a handful of so-called terrorist incidents attributed to radical Muslims to make saying anything you want about one group be deemed free speech, while saying much of anything about another group is over the line.
Call me crazy, call me illiberal, but I don’t think the proper response to this is to have open season on Judaism as well. Rather, I think it’s to take a big step back and examine our norms and standards around how people speak about Islam and its adherents. Unfortunately, now that the massacre has happened, any efforts to rule out inflammatory speech against Muslims will be deemed “giving in” and “letting the terrorists win”. It is of paramount importance in contemporary Western societies that we refuse to change anything about our behavior after an attack other than increasing bombing and violence in response to it. This is hand-in-hand with the continual refusal to recognize that other people have reasons for their violence, while it is taken as given that Western societies have a monopoly on reason for using violence. I have gone over this particular argument so many times in my recent writing that it barely bears repeating, but I still am flummoxed by how often serious media outlets insist on saying that one cannot attempt to explain the reasons behind an attack by others or that any attempt to do so should be considered justification.
This is like saying there can never be a motive for a murder. Generally speaking, unless the person committing the crime is legally insane, motive is a key part of any case against any murderer. We all just spent three months of our lives obsessed with the Serial podcast, largely for its examination of motive and its apparent absence in a murder case. And yet, as soon as the murder is committed by someone we label as a “terrorist”, logic and motive flee the scene as though by divine mandate. Those who attempt to unpack the motive are brandished as “with the terrorists”, an act that would be precisely akin to someone in the jury standing up and accusing the prosecutor at a murder trial of being an accomplice for attempting to attribute a motive to the accused.
It’s totally nuts. But not only is it nuts, it’s extremely counter-productive. Because just as motive is necessary to understand a murder and even prevent future murders, so is understanding the intent behind “terrorism” and other killings or attacks essential to actually preventing them in the future. This is neither justification for the acts nor is it blaming the victims of the attacks. It is merely recognizing that those committing the acts are also human beings (something actually argued against in a frightening number of pieces attempting to dehumanize the “enemy”) and thus have reasons for their actions as well.
The dichotomy between France, the US, and other Western powers saying it is committing drone strikes for reasons, or keeping Gitmo open for reasons, while refusing to even engage discussion on the reasons of those opposing these actions and fighting back, is the single biggest impediment to the West making progress against those who would commit terrorism. As long as you think you’re just fighting animals, you will be a victim of your own propaganda and will never be able to engage in the changes necessary to actually bridge the divide of misunderstanding that ends in death.
But the West continues to dehumanize Islam and its adherents, continues to uphold Charlie Hebdo‘s grossly offensive cartoons as the gold standard of free speech and liberalism. It is thus terribly unsurprising that there would be ardent defenders of Islam who would react extremely negatively and violently to this. Not justified that they would do so, but unsurprising.
As societies, we need to choose free speech over license. We need to remember that minority rights are a key pillar of liberal democracies, in addition to the strong loud voice of majority rule. We need to rebuild a society where all people feel free, not just those with the traditional power. And we need to have the humility to recognize that changing how we act and choosing to respect others is not being intimidated, but is sometimes the ultimate act of courage.
Maybe if there had been voices in France decrying Charlie Hebdo as crossing a line, even censuring some of their cartoons as beyond the realm of free speech, then fewer adherents of Islam would believe the entire nation of France is unified in a culture war against their religion. And maybe that, in turn, would have saved the lives of those cartoonists. Which is not to blame France for what happened – the killings were abhorrent and were the fault of the murderers alone. But we still try to figure out how to prevent murders, even if our failure to do so beforehand does not make it our fault. I don’t see why this set of murders should be treated any differently just because the killers were Muslims.