Saturday, March 12, 2016

Charlie Hebdo deserve their award for free speech whether or not they were racist

A few months after the Charlie Hebdo killings, an organization called PEN decided to honor the slain editors and employees with the Toni and James C. Goodale Free Expression Courage Award. Organization leaders Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel explained why in an open letter, aptly titled Why We’re Honoring Charlie Hebdo. Here’s an excerpt:

These audacious attacks aim to terrorize a worldwide audience into silence on subjects that, though sacred to some, affect many others and must not be above debate…Charlie Hebdo’s staff members knew that producing satire aimed at venerated targets was dangerous. Their valor lies in their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech. While many question the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there, Charlie Hebdo has guarded it vigilantly, keeping it open for all should a time come when we, too, may need to challenge taboos and risk sacrilege. Without those who stake out the border provinces, we would all be forced to dwell in an ever shrinking expressive terrain.

Couldn’t have said it any better myself. Unfortunately, many of PEN’s members did not agree, causing 145 of them to join in an open letter opposing Charlie Hebdo’s receipt of the award. They wrote in part:

"We do not believe in censoring expression. However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression… in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.”

In so doing, they joined
cartoonist Gary Trudeau in “questioning the defense of that far-flung territory because of the bigotry that can lurk there.” And of course, all this came months after the many prior defamations of Charlie Hebdo in the immediate aftermath of the murders.

I explained in a prior post why Charlie Hebdo was not racist by any reasonable interpretation of the word. But for the purposes of this blog post, let’s overlook that. Never mind that the leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Never mind that of the 525 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only 7 singled out Islam, while far more ridiculed Christianity and the racism of France’s own National Front party.

I ask you to forget all that because for the purposes of this award, it’s irrelevant. Even racist assholes can be deserving champions of free speech.

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Thesis on the door in Wittenberg, he did so while holding
a set of religious beliefs that by modern standards was pretty abhorrent. His message surely offended and perhaps threatened many who encountered them. But when he refused to recant those beliefs while on trial, despite being threatened with the prominent and often enforced penalty of being burned at the stake, he did something heroic that paved the way for 500 years of Protestant dissenters after him. In the larger context of European history, the content of his objections to Catholicism and the theological merit of “justification by faith alone” are largely beside the point.

The point is, free-speech martyrdom is content neutral. If the Westboro Baptist Church had their offices firebombed in an attempt at their lives, and they kept protesting anyway, they too would be doing something courageous in the face of repression. They would still be jerks in lots of other ways, just like athletes who win MVP awards or actors who win Oscars can still be bad people. But those who offer such awards do not, and should not, consider perceived defects in the candidates’ character or political beliefs when determining who meets the criteria for the specific award in question.

When PEN gives an award for free speech, it’s celebrating those who preserve that freedom by refusing to forfeit it in the face of a heckler’s veto. PEN is declaring it unjust that people who wish to speak to be silenced by the threat of violent retribution, regardless of what it was they wished to say. Therefore, speakers who encounter threats or even acts of violent retribution and decide to keep speaking anyway, are standing up to that injustice and defending PEN’s founding principles – in this case, at the cost of their lives. That is a tremendous public service which warrants recognition. The substance of what was said shouldn’t even come into the picture.

The cartoonists and editors at Charlie Hebdo had nothing to personally gain from posting those pictures, and everything to lose. They weren’t doing it for profit, they weren’t doing it for self-satisfaction. They were doing it because they genuinely believed it was important that those subjects be ridiculed. They latched on to what they saw as a noble cause, they risked their lives for the sake of that cause, and they did so nonviolently – with that final word being the critical distinction between our conception of martyrdom and that of our Islamist enemies.

Here are four good articles that agree with me, with some excerpts:



Charlie is against all forms of authoritarian religion (Le Monde analyzed ten years of Charlie’s cover stories and found far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam.) Indeed, it is blasphemous. Is that not an honorable left-wing thing to be? It used to be so, before we became so hopelessly confused about Islam: half the time we’re reminding each other that violent fundamentalists like the ones who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders are a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who are ordinary, nonviolent people of good will, and the other half of the time we talk as if the murderers are out to redress real wrongs—and understandably so, even if the target is poorly chosen. Which is it? I’m not sure that latter view serves Muslims well—it’s a bit like saying people who assassinate abortion providers represent Christians, and West Bank settlers represent Jews.



It would be awkward for 145 alleged intellectuals to sign off on a document that made such easily disprovable assertions as signatory Francine Prose's comment to Pollitt that "It's a racist publication. Let's not beat about the bush," so better to holster the race card and instead pivot to an insane new free-speech concept: Even if you are truly equal in offending every segment of society, you are still guilty, because some segments are worse off than others…

Set aside the hypocrisy for a moment, and just think about the practicality of pre-calibrating your speech based on the comparative unequal status of the broad demographic group that the narrow target of your satire may or may not belong to. Doesn't sound like a particularly freeing exercise, even if you (like Charlie Hebdo did) focus primarily on people who hold power.

People who care deeply about global free speech won't soon forget that a collection of prestigious American authors chose the occasion of a mass murder to advocate illiberal principles and slander the dead.



“[L]et’s imagine, for a moment, that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists weren’t very good guys. Surely even bad guys should be safe from fanatics with machine guns. The crucial distinction is not between those we like and those we don’t…but between acts of imagination and acts of violence. The imagination sees and draws and describes many things—pornographic, erotic, satiric, and blasphemous—that are uncomfortable or ugly. But they are not actually happening. The imagination is a place where hypotheses and conditionals rule, and where part of the fun, and most of the point, lies in saying the unsayable in order to test the truths of what’s most often said. When the Charlie cartoonists made Muhammad look foolish, they were not saying that Muslims were evil—they were questioning the entire business of turning a person into a prophet. Not to get this is not to get why they were cartoonists.

Their doubters, it seems, believe that this activity of imagination was wrong or condemnable. They believe, instead, in a kind of communal protection—that the comfort of communities is more important than the public criticism of ideas. It’s a legitimate thought, one with a history of its own. It just doesn’t seem to be a thought worth inspiring a boycott by a self-defined cosmopolitan community of writers. If literature has any social function, after all, it is premised on the belief that, in the long run, the most comfortable community is going to be the one that knows the most about itself. Criticism is always going to be uncomfortable for somebody.



“The relentless campaign against Charlie Hebdo by those accusing it of “racism” or “punching down” has had an effect. Because once deployed, as the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo discovered, the racism charge sticks to the accused’s skin like napalm. And no one is immune — even murdered cartoonists — because there are no penalties for filing a false report. So if they expected unmitigated solidarit√© after their staff was machine gunned (while planning their participation, it should be noted, in an anti-racism event), they were surely disappointed when non-Francophone writers who hadn’t previously heard of Charlie exploded with denunciations of its racist intent. The most profane mainstream examples compared staffers with raping colonialists and genocidal Nazis.


one can’t begrudge Riss and Luz and all the other survivors at Charlie Hebdo the decision to go soft on those who most demand mockery and derision. But we should begrudge those in media who shrugged at the assassin’s veto, claiming they couldn’t publish satirical cartoons out of respect for religion, for whom Je Suis Charlie was merely social media signaling.”

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