Saturday, March 12, 2016

In Defense of Chan Culture

In my last post, I defended what Jacob Canfield called the “edgy-white-guy mentality” that “nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up.” And several posts before that, I argued that Charlie Hebdo’s drawings of the prophet Mohammad were a valuable form of free expression which Eugene Volokh dubs “speech as defiance.”

In this well-written response to the media praise for Charlie Hebdo, Arthur Chu indirectly disagrees with us. He writes:

There’s no particular merit to being an “equal-opportunity offender”—indeed, it’s lazy and cheap, a way to avoid being held accountable for anything you say because none of it is part of a moral worldview or to be taken seriously.

…for half a century now [Charlie Hebdo have] been surviving pretty much on the notoriety of constantly trying to provoke a reaction. And let’s be real: pushing buttons, by itself, doesn’t make your work more virtuous. Pissing people off is just pissing people off.

But that, “pushing buttons, by itself,” is not what Charlie Hebdo were doing. They were pushing very particular buttons, in a manner calculated to make a political statement. And in this case, they were pushing buttons in defiance of violent and credible threats not to push those buttons. There is most certainly “particular merit” in that.

Some buttons need to be pushed, and the way you find out when is by asking whether the touchiness and sensitivity which made it a “button” in the first place are impeding frank and honest discussion on important matters. When it comes to religion, they very often are. The Catholic Church has a very real pedophilia problem, which Charlie Hebdo would not allow to be hushed by the touchiness and sensitivity of Catholics. Conservative right wing parties in Europe have a very real racism problem, which Charlie Hebdo would not allow to be glossed over by the defensiveness of moderate conservatives. And Islam, from the view of Charlie Hebdo, has a great deal many problems, with the persistent risk of being killed for blasphemy foremost among them.

Chu continues:
I’ve already seen what happens when you get a culture that, rather than asking to what end we defend free speech, valorizes free speech for its own sake and thus perversely values speech more the more pointlessly offensive it is—because only then can you prove how devoted you are to freedom by defending it.

When the only thing you’re reverent of is irreverence, when the only thing you hold sacred is the idea that nothing is sacred, well, you eventually get
chan culture, you get one long continuous blast of pure offensiveness and taboo-breaking for taboo-breaking’s sake until all taboos are broken and there’s nothing left to say. You get people who shout racial slurs in unbroken succession all day and think they’ve accomplished something in the name of “free speech” by doing so.

This would be a valid critique  if every media outlet were like Charlie Hebdo, and every website were like 4Chan. Conceded: trolls are not conducive to reasoned political discussion. It would indeed be bad for free speech were they to conquer all forums of debate.

But for so long as the majority of the media abides by the prevailing social taboos, it’s important that at least some do not. I’ll confess: I kind of like 4Chan! I’m not in the mood for it every day, but when you spend most of your time reading dry lawyers on places like The Volokh Conspiracy, sheer obnoxiousness can make for a refreshing study break. In any case, it’s good that it exists, even if only as an outlet that cleanses the discussion by diverting most of the trollish thoughts and behavior. Not every forum in our society can be elevated. Just as there has to be a place for civil, stuffy, academic discourse, there must also be a place for the lewd and disrespectful.

Ultimately, the latter is what makes the former possible. “One long continuous blast of taboo breaking” seems to me a fair assessment of human intellectual progress over the past few millennium, from Socrates to Copernicus to Mikki Kendall. Far from there being nothing left to say, the demise of taboos is precisely when you can start saying things that get evaluated on their independent merits.


When Chu laments how Hebdo was “doing something just to prove you can get away with it,” he’s wrong in two ways. First, with the way things turned out for them, it would be more accurate to say Charlie Hebdo were doing something just to prove you cannot get away with it, which is a far more ominous and important thing to prove. But secondly, even if they had gotten away with it, Chu rolls his eyes at something that should be celebrated. There may not be valor in shouting racial slurs for the hell of it, but there is valor in defying bullies.

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