I Am Charlie, Uncomfortably: The Price of Free Discourse

Offensive? Yes, of course it is. Your choice is to ignore it, dismiss it, or execute the cartoonist?

Offensive? Yes, of course it is. Your choice is to dismiss it, disagree with it, or sanction the execution the cartoonist.

To hold a pen is to be at war.”  Voltaire

In the wake of the murder of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo Magazine offices, there has been shock, mourning and much passionate debate. It is sad that it takes the assassination of a group of French satirical cartoonists to prompt a serious discussion of what constitutes freedom of expression and where the limits of cultural offense might be located.

The most difficult part of defending freedom of expression is that it requires that you take a stand with people whose ideas are offensive to you. Much Charlie Hebdo’s satire took aim at the hypocrisy, intransigence and parsimony of the religious groups that make up French society. I, and many people, found the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo offensive; they were often racist, homophobic, sexist and concertedly insulting to Muslims, Jews, and Catholics, using exaggerated visual stereotypes to get their point across. I can’t defend the content or the artistic merit of much of Charlie Hebdo’s work, but many people would equally refuse to defend the content or the artistic merit of what I write.

That’s the thing about freedom of expression: the worth of any particular act of expression is always going to be subjective, but the freedom to express it is not.

If you’re puzzled as to why so many French people have taken to the streets holding up pencils in solidarity with the executed cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, it’s not because they all were fans of the content of those cartoons. It’s because the French have historically been staunch defenders of free expression. They believe the fabric of their society depends on it. The same principles that ensured the publication of the works of the Marquis de Sade, Guillaume Appolinaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Bataille, Anais Nin, and the most famous ‘obscene’ works over the centuries ensured the legal publication of the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. This isn’t to say the French are perfect. They also banned the wearing of Niqabs (full face covers). Which, to me, is also a freedom of expression issue. However, it is worth remembering that much of our understanding of what a liberal society is comes from French philosophy.

It is apparent that there are many people out there who cannot conceptually distinguish between the defense of free expression and the content of what is being defended. This is a serious intellectual deficit.

Yesterday, I was publically accused of defending “racism, homophobia and anti-semitism” by Kitty Stryker, who calls herself a pornographer and airs her views on Huffpo. She later went on to write a long blog on the topic, attempting to explain why some free expression is okay, but not the free expression of opinions she finds offensive. But what is more, she believes that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were responsible for inciting acts of violence against religious minorities and bringing about their own tragedy. Similarly, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League stated that the editor of Charlie Hebdo was personally responsible for the death of the magazine’s employees because of the religious offense the cartoons inspired. Yes, in essence, both of them imply that Charlie Hebdo was ‘asking for it’. I will leave spotting the similarity of this to other preposterous illogical statements up to you.

They are both representative of a growing anti-liberal, anti-rational movement that, essentially, excuses acts of violence brought about by feelings of offense. They demand tolerance for their views while being intolerant of the views of others and they find no incongruity in this. Ms Styker demands tolerance for her pornography while denying it to Charlie Hebdo’s satire. When missionaries of Mr. Donohue’s faith are slaughtered in Nigeria, they’re martyred innocents, but when gunmen assassinate cartoonists, they were ‘asking for it’.

A civil society requires that people understand the difference between an act of expression and a physical deed. People may say, write or draw things that you find offensive and, in a free society, you get to say, write or draw offensive things back. Language and images are symbolic acts, not physical ones. This is the basis of civil – yes, civil – discourse: the trading of symbolic expression, whether ideas or insults.

No civil society should tolerate, excuse or defend a physically violent response to an act of symbolic offense.

What people like Kitty Stryker, Bill Donohue and many so called ‘activists’ have in common is their apology for people who allow their emotions to overcome their rational thought and vent their anger in ways that go beyond the symbolic. Unless, of course, they are themselves the victims of that violent response.

To a man who has been the victim of abuse as a child at the hands of a priest, watching someone in a cassock walk down the street may be offensive. To a Palestinian, a man wearing ultra-orthodox Jewish garb may be offensive. To a feminist, a group of Muslim women covered in burkhas might be offensive. To someone with strong views on the sanctity of sex within marriage, pornography may be offensive. They all have the right to complain, to write, to draw, to express their displeasure or disgust in symbolic ways. What they don’t have a right to do is shoot the people who offended them.

In the last few decades, with talk radio, reality TV, tabloid journalism, political speech and Hollywood movies, we have consistently witnessed the rise of the valorization of emotion over reason. There is a constant narrative of insulted people who ‘just can’t take any more’ and act out their rage. Meanwhile, we are constantly encouraged to feel what we feel, say what we want to say, free ourselves from social restraint.  Moreover, at every level of society, we are encouraged to see ourselves as the most important person, put our needs before others, serve our own interests.

For me, it comes down to this: no words, no pictures, no ideas, no matter how offensive gives a person the right to act violently. No symbolic attack on an ideology or religion excuses a physical act in response. We are individually, ultimately responsible for governing our behaviour and limiting it to the symbolic realm.

We need the Charlie Hebdos of the world; in the same way we need Pythagoras, Galileo, pornographers, the Pope and Voltaire. And we each of us have the right to ignore or dismiss or contradict any of them. We need them all because there is no really free discourse without all of them, because anyone empowered to limit that discourse is on the road to totalitarianism.

So yes, reluctantly, I am Charlie. Because the consequences of not being Charlie are dire.

  35 comments for “I Am Charlie, Uncomfortably: The Price of Free Discourse

  1. January 9, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    As someone who has had her own run-ins with Ms Stryker, may I first of all say you seem to have responded as was needed; thank you for that.

    And I couldn’t agree more. I think one of the hardest parts of fighting for our freedoms is sometimes having to defend things we strongly dislike. But it’s so important that we look at the bigger picture, at the truth, and consider the freedoms of others, no matter how offensive we may find their symbolic works: it’s still a freedom we need.

  2. January 9, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    I think what bothers me most is just how many people who should be staunch supporters of freedom of expression, aren’t. It is no wonder our rights are slowly being submerged in a sea of self-centered outrage and feudal restriction.

    • January 9, 2015 at 5:33 pm

      Yes. It bothers me too. This whole thing has been a massive eye-opener. I have discovered that a lot of people who I assumed I shared these specific values with … I was wrong about. Interestingly enough, this is not a right/left discussion at all. But on the bright side, I have found out a lot of new compatriots.

  3. Alice King
    January 9, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    I see so many using freedom as a catch phrase. A word to evoke high emotions yet they do not truly comprehend what freedom is. Freedom goes way beyond one’s personal views. It entails being able to stand up for those we find offensive and realize they have the same right to voice their opinions and views.

    • January 9, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      Yes, Alice. I wonder where anyone got the idea that practicing freedom was easy.

      • Alice King
        January 10, 2015 at 9:31 am

        I so wish I knew. Several weeks ago I had a moment of clarity that scared even my hubby. After reading various things on line against this or that, wanting to ban this or that, and make blah blah illegal I came to one sad conclusion. We currently live in a society of victims looking to be offended. Simple yet sad truth. I was told today I am a dreamer for hoping that someday we can all live as we see fit and not be afraid to express our views.

        • January 10, 2015 at 11:41 am

          “We currently live in a society of victims looking to be offended.”

          I agree. And the sad thing is that people cling to that victimhood like grim death because it seems to be the most powerful identity they can claim.

  4. January 9, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    I agree with your thoughts 100%! I find many ideas offensive that I see, read and hear but I staunchly defend the rights of the people who express them. In a perfect world I would hope for a common code of civil and human respect, whereby one would leave certain ideas out of the public arena. Your essay was very timely for me because this was the topic of a long discussion I had today with a friend today. I thought I would let you read what I posted on my Facebook page yesterday: “The freedom to express one’s thoughts is essential in the pursuit of liberty. It does not mean that there will not be times when one is diametrically opposed to what one see’s, reads, or hears in the public square. But this barbaric response to the freedom of the press by these Islamic extremists must not be allowed . Free people must shout out in unison, “This will not stand”! We must support a line in the sand for all people who believe in freedom and civil behavior.”

    • January 9, 2015 at 6:17 pm

      Well said, Joseph.

      Yeah, it is my preference that people find smarter and more lucid ways of critiquing organized religion than the approach taken by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. But I defend their right to draw what they like. And contrary to the French, I also would defend a woman’s right to wear a burqa. And a man’s right to walk around with no pants on. And many other things I find personally uncomfortable.

      I suspect that somewhere along the line ‘freedom’ and ‘comfortable’ became synonymous. They’re not. And it is interesting that both Voltaire and America’s founding fathers knew that… viscerally.

  5. TFP
    January 9, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    Yes, it is so very troubling to observe the recent events in France. Freedom of speech, expression, and thought are such high ideals. Yet, I’ve noticed that said freedoms are elusive and relative. As a whole, humans enjoy servitude, enslavement to a thought, idea, system, or a propaganda promoted by an entity that has an agenda, almost always a selfish one. Being a slave is so much easier, no responsibility in being a willing slave. The cartoonists and others were executed by blind hate. Hate is a ruthless master, hate causes the loss of perception, awareness, and discernment. Where the cartoonists enslaved to a hate? Perhaps… Humor always has a target, when done maliciously is it humor? When one observes acts of violence one asks, why? When one draws offensive cartoons, one asks, why? To provoke a response….Well they all provoked a response, just as, politicians, and religions incite people to an action. Its how we as individuals respond that matters, it how we behave that matters.

    Incidentally, its a sub zero blizzard outside here, I may have to go assassinate the weather man. (That is a joke, I love meteorologists.)

    • January 10, 2015 at 2:24 am

      “Its how we as individuals respond that matters, it how we behave that matters. ”

      Yes, it really is. And being a member of an offended race or religion or gender doesn’t absolve us of that responsibility.

      • TFP
        May 15, 2015 at 5:14 pm

        Did you happen to catch any segments of Michelle Obama’s recent Tuskegee commencement speech? She commented on a New Yorker magazine cartoon depiction of her & her husband. It reminded me of this writing.

  6. Korhomme
    January 9, 2015 at 9:10 pm

    Satire, to me, is the use of wit, invective, sarcasm, irony when lampooning someone or an idea; but it should also be clever. Jonathon Swift and the cartoonists who drew the images of the Prince Regent were experts; savage, but clever when “telling truth to power”. And yes, satire can be offensive; if it wasn’t, at least to some people, it wouldn’t be satire. What I find difficult is “gratuitous offensiveness”, something that perhaps tries to be funny but isn’t. I don’t find the cartoon at the start of this post particularly clever or funny; it might be accurate, why it doesn’t tell us why Mahomet is a “star”. I would ignore it.

    And defending the “freedom of expression” reaches into murky areas: is this freedom unbounded, no matter how offensive or illegal or threatening? It’s very much a modern trope to threaten rape to a woman whose opinions you don’t agree with. Is this a freedom of expression I should support?

    As for the burkha; if the wearer freely chooses it of her own volition, after proper thought, that should be fine, no matter how daft I think it: but, surely, many people see it as a symbol of female repression by the patriarchy, and the wearer as someone who has been immersed in a doctrinaire culture.

    • January 9, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      I’m going to say something that you’re probably going to find pretty shocking. I will not TRADE the right to free expression for all, because a few people abuse it criminally.

      • Korhomme
        January 10, 2015 at 2:20 am

        Actually, RG, I’m neither shocked nor surprised. You’re saying (I think) that there are no limits to free speech, and I’m wondering about this. Not because I dislike alternative/offensive opinions—they make me reflect and review my views, but because they seem to be accurate, helpful to so many people who think that such views are mainstream, acceptable, and something that should be followed. I’m thinking, for example, about websites that encourage depressed teenagers to commit suicide; such people need help, not encouragement. Yet this is an expression of free speech. How can I reconcile this? Is free expression an absolute right? And if it is, how do/should we protect the vulnerable? (And here I’m thinking of those who have been indoctrinated by their masters, whether in the IRA or Arabic factions; suicide bombers, and the like, who are prepared to give their lives for a cause, while their masters hide behind them, cowardly intelligentsia that they are.)

        • January 10, 2015 at 12:02 pm

          Korhomme,

          Some people run over people with their car on purpose. Do we ban cars? Stop people driving? No. But we do ensure people know how to drive before we let them use a car. We prosecute the very few individuals who use the tool to a criminal end. And, if you curtail free speech, people who are hell bent on committing those types of atrocious acts will go underground and do it surreptitiously in places where no one can challenge them.

          But what is more important, I think, is that we educate children to use language well and knowledgeably. It is something we don’t do now. And, funnily enough, it is something that only a good grounding in the humanities can teach.

          You bring up a really good point about indoctrination and radicalization. That also happens with language. But it happens in the absence of a greater voice of rational thought. Moreover, it usually happens – in Ireland, in poverty stricken Muslim ghettos in the suburbs of Paris, in the absence of other opportunities and options. If Western European countries really want to put an end to radicalization, they need to put their money where their mouth is. The tolerance for huge pockets of high unemployment and lack of opportunity for young men is just as much a factor in radicalization as any kind of speech.

  7. Robin
    January 9, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    I, too, consider most of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons I’ve seen as offensive. Therefore, I have not gone looking for more. But that is my opinion and I have the right to express it, as they have the right to express theirs through their publication.
    I also have the right to ignore, avoid, critique, criticize, or rail against those things I personally find offensive. Those are acceptable reactions and consequences. I accept that there may be negative consequences to how one expresses themselves, but those consequences should never include violence and/or death. Never. No matter how offensive.
    Nor should such freedom be legislated away.
    Evelyn Beatrice Hall said it well – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

  8. January 10, 2015 at 1:13 am

    The only thing I can think of to say is this: I might not agree with what you have to say (draw, write, etc), but I will die defending your right to say it.

    Religion and Politics – two things that mean so very little in the big picture. And yet more people have died for these than for any other reason in the history of mankind. I don’t pretend to understand either topic. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to understand something that gets twisted and translated into a mindset where it’s ok for people to commit acts of unspeakable violence in the name of their “god” or their “views”.

    Maybe I’m ignorant, and if ignorance is bliss than so be it. To those at Charlie Hebdo, it doesn’t matter why they died. It matters that they’re gone. And that is just too sad to take.

    • January 10, 2015 at 1:20 am

      How is that ignorant? I think that is a very ethical stance. You don’t have to admire or approve of what someone says or writes or draws to feel sad that they were murdered.

      “Religion and Politics – two things that mean so very little in the big picture. And yet more people have died for these than for any other reason in the history of mankind.”

      Nope, doesn’t sound ignorant to me. Sounds about right.

  9. Six
    January 10, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Under the cartoon, you list the options: agree with it, dismiss it, and sanction execution. The executioners actually had a fourth option … The courts. Of course, that would have meant respecting another country’s laws.

    • January 10, 2015 at 6:59 pm

      There was a case brought against Charlie Hebdo for hate speech, but it failed. To be honest, I did choose one of the least clever and most offensive of their cartoons. Many of them cannot really be said to promote racial hatred in any direct way. Some of them are more nuanced. As far as the French courts were concerned, drawing pictures of the Prophet doesn’t constitute promoting hatred of Muslims. And I can see their point. It upsets them, but it is hard to argue that it makes anyone hate them.

  10. TFP
    January 10, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    Though this obviously is a very tragic event, I’m finding the subsequent news reports interesting. The Muslim minority now residing in France will have a most difficult road ahead of them. What would be the result if these people would have walked in and took there own lives in front of the newspaper staff, demonstrating their strongly held beliefs, instead of murdering them and running off? Likely would been a bit more effective. I’m more of the thought that in this case the ‘beliefs’ of the individuals are a mere excuse to to excersice frustrations of not getting what they thought they deserved in life. No, your not going to be a rockstar, billionaire, pro athlete, or a supermodel. Many young men (and women I suppose) join military organizations striving to be able to feel a sense of accomplishment, respect, awe, or be able to use weapons to kill and have someone say, yes that’s okay your a hero! On the other hand what kind of propaganda were these individuals influenced? Free speech…is a two edged sword that can be very sharp. Still, when people join organizations, groups, religions they must retain a personal sense of right and wrong.

    I understand when someone says “I believe this so strongly that I’m willing to die for it.”
    It’s the the “I believe this so strongly that I will kill you for it.”
    That’s wrong and the latter has occured way to often in history

    • January 10, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      I’m fairly certain that the people who orchestrate and indoctrinate these guys are not only not concerned about the welfare of French Muslims trying to live in France. They want exactly the kind of discord that this kind of act brings about. The French Muslims get persecuted, kids get more radicalized, more discord ensues. It’s what they want. Just like the far right in the US. They don’t want cross-party agreement. They want end-times.

      • TFP
        January 12, 2015 at 7:08 pm

        “They want end times.”
        Could you elaborate as to what you mean by that statement, in the context of this discussion. Seems many believe their are very intelligent men behind the various horrific acts. There were many news reports about how ‘highly trained’ these gunman were. I dont believe it takes much training to fire an automatic weapon at a bunch of unarmed desk people. If they were highly trained they would have had a better exit stategy, as in exiting the country. I’m a bit skeptical of a vast global network of terrorist. Apologies for perhaps getting off subject a bit.

        • January 13, 2015 at 7:34 am

          And perhaps I was a little too fast getting to my punchline.

          Let me take a step back and explain. I find the thinking of certain radical conservative groups very similar to each other. They all use a very narrow interpretation of some religious or ideological text as their road map. Whether it is pseudo-Muslim extremists, or fundamentalist pseudo-Christian right-wingers. They are all after imposing by force (of gun or law) a ‘utopian’ order on the world. But whether that is some concocted global Sharia law, or a rigidly Christian state, it is unsustainable. They will brook no compromise because they interpret compromise as blasphemy. So any opposition must be destroyed. It is either my way or the highway. And, I think they secretly, ultimately know that it’s going to be the highway – and that’s end times.

          • TFP
            January 16, 2015 at 6:07 pm

            The ‘true believer’ of a religious, political, or even a business doctrine is most certainly an imposing character.

  11. Ian
    January 11, 2015 at 12:40 am

    I’m not a fan of satire, as it usually makes me feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. But it can be remarkably astute and incisive and must occasionally annoy those it’s aimed at.

    Nor am I comfortable with people expounding their views about how other people should behave. If someone says, “I don’t like this”, I always react with, “well don’t do it then” (I have a slightly rebellious side).

    But I accept unreservedly that, in a free society, both are equally valid expressions of opinion, and I defend their right to say these things, so long as they comply with the laws regarding defamation, slander, incitement to hate or inciting others to commit acts of violence. We can’t pick and choose what we say is freedom of speech to suit our own personal biases and bigotry. That way has all too often lead to pain, suffering and inhumanity.

  12. Bruised Lotus
    January 11, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Ahh the root of the controversy. I am an avid reader of your work, and others in your genre, because it makes me feel a little bit less alone in my rather (ahem) unorthodox view of my own sexuality, your words bring a sense of “normal” to my battered self worth, and for that right to read and or someday write such material is a wonderful right that we enjoy every day. How can we then adjust that right to fit our own needs, while denying the same right to those whos ideals are offensive or otherwise different than our own? We cannot, for if we do, we seal our own fate as free people to say and write what we do, and that is a price i am not at all willing to pay.

  13. Dan
    January 12, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    Ms Stryker should and must be aware feminists class what she does (porn) as “hate speech”.
    She will argue that porn is not hate speech but as feminists say it is surely she should be banned

    • January 13, 2015 at 7:59 am

      I’m sure Ms Stryker thinks that certain forms of porn ARE hate speech. Just not hers. And there are many, many people – including the UK censors who agree with her. My problem is not in identifying certain works, speech acts or drawings as hate speech. I think they probably are. But when they are out in the open, we can argue against them. We can publicly criticism them. We can have discourse over why we feel they are unethical. But to ban symbolic acts we consider hateful doesn’t put an end to that hatred. It simply puts an end to the eyesore. We don’t see it. We can pretend it isn’t there. And that there is no problem.

      For me, there are two great problems with this: one, it actually inhibits us, as a society, from addressing the root of the problem, and, two, the mechanism that disallows that type of expression will go on to disallow – even if only in the running of an everyday bureaucratic way – expressions that are NOT hate speech at all.

      If you look at what is now banned by the UK censors, you can see that consensual spanking and consensual verbal humiliation are both banned. This begins to make the law look absurd. A huge number of people LIKE and PRACTICE spanking in their sexual play and it is not, by any stretches of the imagination, dangerous or hateful. The more nuanced issue is that of verbal humiliation.

      What I have always found fascinating about human eroticism is that it so often has found its way, almost unconsciously, into spaces that unpack the complexity of the human psyche. One of the reason many people (not me, I must admit) find consensual verbal humiliation erotic is that it serves as a kind of catharsis.

      It is indisputably hate speech. It is often the very words the bottom spends their life in fear of hearing. That fear is crippling and so acute that, hearing those very words that are so feared in a controlled scene, going through the emotional responses to them, living through them and coming out the other side intact becomes a transcendent, erotic and truly life-affirming act. I think a case in point is Mollena Williams’ take on race-play. Read http://www.ebony.com/love-sex/talk-like-sex-race-play-aint-for-everyone-911#axzz3OeuF0hXj

  14. dan factor
    January 12, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    This one cracked me up..”I dunno, I’ve hung out with libertarians and I’d rather avoid it in the future”

    Lol you mean you hung around with some libertarians cos you thought it was great they don’t think porn should be banned but then you found out that they think shit you think SHOULD be banned shouldn’t be banned as well as porn and you got pissed at them!

    • January 13, 2015 at 8:11 am

      Well it is interesting, isn’t it? That Ms Stryker finds herself agreeing with the Catholic League (who would have no truck with her pornography) and I (a die hard socialist) find myself standing on a line with libertarians.

      I think this why this is an exciting and fertile debate. I find myself having to reconsider a number of positions I have taken in the past. I used to believe that religious symbols had no place in state schools. The French laws that prohibit the wearing of yarmulkes, crucifixes, hijabs, etc. in school seemed fair to me – to offer a neutral place for all kids of all faiths. I have since had cause to reconsider this conclusion. If I follow my own argument and not be a hypocrite, I have to admit that those prohibitions seek to pretend a homogeneity that does not exist. And the ban simply masks the reality. Better, I think, to wear whatever and educate children better.

  15. January 28, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    Although we have followed each other on Twitter for some time I’d not ventured into your blog before. I’m glad I did! Beautifully written, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I also made the point that I found Charlie Hebdo offensive but agreed with their right to be, but you have done so far better than I did.

  16. January 29, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    It’s like a snake swallowing its own tail, isn’t it? “I’m tolerant of everything except intolerance.” Can’t we all just get along?

  17. Lee
    February 12, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    Frankly, as far as religion goes, it’s been the go-to excuse for the worst of human atrocity since time immemorial, while so-say preaching the opposite.

    Maybe we should consider the fact that humans invented religion.

    A single human, somewhere, came up with an idea that a) explained a universe filled with apparently random chaos b) gave the fearful apes something to cling to and c) allowed said inventor an *unprecedented degree of control over the other apes*.

    Now that, I’d believe without much hesitation. That’s about as fully human as it gets.

    Then they all drank the Koolaid that said “our gods are best” (spread by said priest) and the fighting ensues.

    Isn’t it time we grew out of our need for imaginary friends?

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