One of the choices that had to be made in writing about the massacre of Charlie Hebdo was whether to publish the cartoons that gave particular rise to the offense. I decided to do so. In retrospect, I would not have made a different choice.
It has nothing to do with the content of the cartoon, and I feel no compulsion to offer the standard caveat about religion or offense. I made my decision based on the fact that I support the right of free speech, regardless of content or offensiveness, and by publishing the cartoon, use my soapbox to support the fact that Charlie Hebdo would not be intimidated into silence at the end of a gun.
David Brooks, at the New York Times, might call this an immature message. Perhaps even a puerile message.
In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.
Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.
Brooks’ message is one that has been made regularly. It’s a lie. While there is no question that healthy societies don’t suppress speech, that message cannot co-exist with the creation of a hierarchy of valued speech. Brooks’ “respect” quotient reflects his comfort level, his sensibilities, as well as the sensibilities of many others who shudder at the decline in civility of expression. He respects that which makes him most comfortable.
The problem is that the speech that makes people most uncomfortable is the speech most in need of protection. I didn’t post the Charlie Hebdo cartoon because I love it or share its sentiment. Hell, I don’t speak French, and don’t know what it says. I don’t care. I did it to make a different point, that a healthy society demands that all of us take a risk to support free speech in the face of guns.
No, I am not at risk of the fanatics attacking SJ World Headquarters. But I will take as much of that risk as I possibly can. I will not be intimidated. I support the fact that Charlie Hebdo would not either, and honor their choice. Accordingly to Brooks, I do not deserve to sit at the grown-up table. That’s fine with me, as I choose not to sit with Brooks or his self-righteous grown-ups.
When Rick Horowitz used a Charlie Hebdo cartoon as his avatar on twitter to show solidarity, however, the shrews of self-righteousness challenged him.
The image I chose was – deliberately – one of the mildest I could find of the covers from Charlie Hebdo.
One Twitterer called me on it.
Now, I still don’t fucking know exactly how to respond to that. Obviously, I can support free speech without passing along offensive cartoons. But that was not the initial point, as you will recall from what I said above. (Hint: It was about not allowing oneself to be intimidated by murderous asshats who are willing to kill when they are offended by people “speaking” – especially through cartoons – things of which they, the murderous asshats, do not approve.)
But this was followed up by others who felt the need to police his choice.
Then came this, from a Twitter friend:
And, later, this:
It gave Rick pause to consider his decision. He did some soul searching. He spoke with a Muslim friend. He reached his epiphany.
And so, finally, this too, I know: I do not need to offend my friends, to fight our enemies.
Fighting our common enemies doesn’t require Being Charlie Hebdo.
No, standing up for free speech does not demand that one publish things that they find offensive just because. But that’s a strawman argument, as that was not why people are republishing the cartoons deemed so offensive as to be worthy of murder. This was not a cheer for free speech, but a condemnation of murder or the exercise of it.
But the self-proclaimed grown-ups muster rationalizations that allow them to remain in their comfort zone, where they can support what grown-ups support, take no risk of being called puerile and maintain their respectability. They are unwilling to take the chance of looking foolish or offensive by putting their respectability on the line and standing for something.
There are times when a discussion of rights such as free speech demands great nuance. There are times when it demands the guts to tell murderers that we will not be intimidated into silence. Grown ups should be capable of distinguishing between the two. Cowards make excuses. There is always an excuse for not taking a risk.