Thoughts on Commentary on the Attack on Charle Hebdo

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Matt Welch over at Reason noted the magazine’s cartoons making fun of Jesus, and asked “which media entity in this Culture-War-scarred country (America), with its stronger free-speech protections, would have the courage and latitude to blaspheme both major religions,” adding that the magazine “blasted authority and piety of all stripes.”
There’s people who view piety as a bad thing, and for many of them making fun of it is an all-important task, a way of exposing religion as a fraud and opening people’s eyes. Blasphemy is for these people the highest expression of free speech, the reflection of the highest purpose of free speech. Defense of free speech itself and defense of the content of this particular kind of speech can be almost one and the same, from this perspective.
From this view, everything should be questionable, but the value of these questions comes from the fact that people like Matt Welch already know the answer: “authority and piety” is wrong, illegitimate, false.
For me, free speech is valuable as a process. The substance of any particular speech in question may not have any particular merit, but it is up to the reader or listener to judge this (which doesn’t mean their judgments will be right.)
Going too far for me in the opposite direction from Welch is first ballot Jeopardy Hall of Famer Arthur Chu, now a writer for the Daily Beast. He believes the right to free expression is “a universal,” but that the content of Charlie Hebdo’s speech lacked merit. One can believe these things without contradiction. But Chu nevertheless blatantly contradicts himself. In the free speech is good bit, he says that where the threat of violence exists, “we should strive for the standard of knowing what we say might attract violence but speaking out as though the threat did not exist. That is the essence of the virtue we call ‘courage,’ and the staff of Charlie Hebdo displayed it and should be honored for possessing it.” But then he says “Charlie Hebdo is also a crap publication and people need to stop celebrating it and making martyrs out of its staff. [They] were human beings with families, friends, and loved ones. Their deaths should be mourned for that reason. But no more so than the Sodexo building maintenance man or the two cops who were also killed in the crossfire.” So which is it?
If you’re killed for your speech, you’re a martyr. Welch and Chu disagree about the merits of the speech. But if we intrinsically value free speech, it matters that Charlie Hebdo stood by its convictions in the face of danger; and their deaths don’t matter just as deaths, but as they relate to free speech. If Chu truly wants to separate the question of free speech from the merits of any particular speech, he ought to celebrate martyrs for free speech independently of the content of their speech.
Chu further argues that Muslims are a persecuted minority in France, and so making fun of them constitutes “shooting down” rather than speaking truth to power. He compares their willingness to antagonize Muslims with their apology for an anti-Semetic portrayal of Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, wife of the sone of Nicholas Sarkozy, when “Muslims in France are clearly worse off overall” than her, which shows that “when push comes to shove, that they’d rather be aiming downward than upward.” This should show us the limitations of using power relationships as the basis for our moral standards. An anti-Semitic caricature is an attack on an entire group of people (a group of people that is frequently a target of violence in France), and the social standing of the immediate target really doesn’t matter at all. Presumably Chu wouldn’t actually defend the anti-Semitic caricature; but he presumably also wouldn’t object to satire mocking the Sarkozy daughter-in-law in other ways. Clearly, then, it isn’t only the social standing of your target that matters, but also the content of your mockery.
But nevertheless, did Charlie Hebdo “shoot down” at Muslims? No, because the cartoons in question didn’t make fun of them at all; they weren’t bigoted, weren’t comparable to the anti-Semitic caricatures. They made fun of Mohammed, which they knew would antagonize Muslims. There’s all the difference in the world, which is a good thing. It allows us to maintain a social norm against fomenting bigotry, defined by a neutral standard, while not maintaining one, or not nearly as strong a one, against attacking something a group holds sacred.
And they were shooting up, because, obviously, they antagonized a group of people that included members who were willing and able to kill them, which is certainly more than they could have feared from Nicholas Sarkozy’s daughter-in-law, or the French equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League. If we accept Chu’s standard that shooting down in satire is a vice and shooting up is a virtue, then the world is entirely right to respect and celebrate Charlie Hebdo.
Ross Douthat had a sensible take on the matter: blaspheme isn’t really admirable or desirable under most circumstances, but when there is a mortal danger for a particular kind of blasphemy, that blasphemy “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 neds to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization.


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