New York Times Won’t Fight for Free Speech

– A New York Times editorial about the ideological fallout from the Charlie Hebdo massacres notes that the Hebdo editor in chief Gerard Biarddemanded that we “finally…rid our political and intellectual vocabulary of the dirty term ‘laicard integriste.” The Times says the following about this: “Loosely translated, those words mean ‘die-hard secularist.’ What Mr. Biard was cahllenging was the argument that committed secularists like himself and the staff of Charlie Hebdo had essentially brought this tragedy upon themselves, and that there is, by implication, a sort of moral equivalence between deeply held secularist views and the ‘religious totalitarianism’ – his words – that he and his staff loved to skewer.”

This is really just using the attack to place the idea his magazine stood for, French-style secularist absolutism, above criticism. (From wikipedia: “French political leaders, though not by any means prohibited from making religious remarks, mostly refrain from it. Religious considerations are generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate….Many see being discreet with one’s religion as a necessary part of being French. This has led to frequent divisions with some non-Christian immigrants, especially with part of France’s large Muslim population. A debate took place over whether any religious apparel or displays by individuals, such as the Islamic hijab, Sikh turban, (large) Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David, should be banned from public schools. Such a ban came into effect in France in 2004.”) A satirist’s ideals should be as subject to criticism as the things he satirizes.

– The NYT editorial doesn’t comment on this, instead going on to cite and comment on further remarks by the Hebdo editor in chief:

“Even as people lamented the massacre, he wrote, some of them offered a maddening qualifier: ‘Yes, we condemnt terrorism, but…’…
“Obviously there can be no ‘but’ in condemning the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, or the ideology that encourages murder in the name of religion….
“Yet” (you knew that was coming!) “there are legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression in this tragedy.
“In the wake of the terror attack, French authorities began aggressive enforcements of a law against supporting or justifying terrorism, including arrests of people who spoke admiringly about the shootings at Charlie Hebdo.”

Well, okay, perhaps free speech demands that we allow those things. Is that what the Times means by “legitimate questions raised about freedom of expression”? No.

“Not surprisingly, their [French authorities’] actions have raised questions of a double standard – one for cartoonists who deliberately insult religion, when their cartoons are certain to antagonize Muslims at a time when anti-Muslim feelings are already at high levels in France and across much of Europe, and another for those who react by applauding terrorists.” This sentence indicates that blasphemy, at least against Islam, is pushing the limits of free expression, somewhere in the range of advocacy of violence.
“The difference, according to French authorities, is between the right to attack an idea and the right to attack people or incite hatred.
“The distinction is recognized in the various laws against hate speech or inciting violence that exist in most Western states.
“Freedom of expression is broader in the United States, but there, too, there are legal limitations on speech that involves incitement, libel, obscenity or child pornography.
“But drawing the line between speech that is disgusting and speech that is dangerous is inherently difficult and risky.”

So for the New York Times, it is difficult to separate blasphemy not only from European “hate speech” crimes, but from banned expression like incitement, libel, and child pornography. Note the description of blasphemy as disgusting- even if one agrees, isn’t free speech all about protecting what some find disgusting? Note the slippery use of the word “dangerous.” It implies that obviously legitimate legal limitations on speech exist only because this speech is “dangerous,” and of course it eliminates the moral distinction between speech that is dangerous because it incites violence and speech that is dangerous because it angers people willing to commit violence in response.
The Times’ editorial closes as follows: “That the tragedy in Paris has served to raise these questions is in no way an insult to the members of the Charlie Hebdo staff who perished.

“Shocking people into confronting reality was, after all, what their journal – which they proudly called a ‘journal irresponsable’ – was all about.”

The reality that we’re supposed to confront is, presumably, that whenever someone makes a point of committing blasphemy against Islam, one can expect that there is a decent chance that a fair number of people will respond murderously or otherwise violently.

Normally, people demanding that we “confront reality” about Muslims, and the possibility that we may have Islamic law violently imposed on us, are right-wingers arguing that we ought to fight for our free institutions and are in a clash of civilizations or something of the sort. The New York Times operates from the same basic premise, but for it the right to blasphemy isn’t worth dying for, so we ought to perhaps abandon it.

– Perhaps if the Times editorial board read Vox.com, they wouldn’t be worried about any such danger. In contrast to the New York Times, Vox.com appears to reject the premise that those who commit blasphemy against Islam are in any particular danger, arguing that what we have instead are more or less random murders. Vox noted that they themselves showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and didn’t get any death threats from Muslims, and apparently would have us generalize from that experience.

Ezra Klein’s Voxplanation on the matter does at least have the virtue of not giving the terrorists legitimacy, though it has the demerit of being divorced from reality. The NYT editorial board and countless others, including Jeopoardy! champ Arthur Chu, a journalism dean writing in the USA Today, and the Bishop of Rome himself, evidently believe that as long as you give a perfunctory “of course there is no justification for terrorism,” you have unimpeachable antiterrorist credentials.

This is nonsense. I couldn’t care less whether you endorse or condemn terrorism, and neither do the terrorists. What I care about is whether you’re willing to grant them the right to dictate terms because of their terrorism. By “grant them the right,” I don’t mean just saying, on pragmatic grounds, that they have a certain power and one has to appease them, though that would be bad enough. I mean holding that, because they are willing and able to murder for their ideals, those ideals have a certain moral standing; that violence shows just how offended they are, and therefore just how wrong Charlie Hebdo has been. These distressingly common arguments invariably treat offensiveness of the speech and danger of resulting violence as part of the same argument, interchangeable ideas. They treat terrorist violence as natural, understandable. It really doesn’t matter that they condemn it.

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