“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.
@remittancegirl welp then we disagree. and I am absolutely saddened you choose to defend racism, homophobia, and anti-semitism.
— Kitty Stryker (@kittystryker) January 8, 2015
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.