So we’re not all Charlie Hebdo …
David Brooks opines today concerning the murders in Paris (quit calling them “executions” and giving them some sort of legal patina):
Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.
So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.
The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.
We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.
But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.
A lot of people are panning Brooks today, but on the large point, I think he’s right. What was done was, in many people’s opinion, “puerile” and “offensive”. But as he further points out, even those who are puerile and offensive in that regard do indeed serve a “useful public role.” They point to things that need pointed at and they do it in a way that is difficult to ignore. That doesn’t mean I have to like their methods or even their message, but I do want them to have the freedom to express it.
For myself, I usually avoid that sort of offense. I personally think most points can be made within reasonable bounds of propriety. But those are limits I put on myself. It’s a personal belief that I am able to sway more people with reasonable arguments and bits of sarcasm that I am from being puerile and offensive. I believe that those who engage in that sort of behavior turn off more minds than they turn on. But that’s my belief. However, for those that believe otherwise, they have the full right to engage in such behavior as long as it doesn’t violate the rights of others. And no, you have absolutely no right to not be offended.
So in that regard, Brooks is right. I’m not in the mold of Charlie Hebdo … but I defend their right to be offensive, profane, blasphemous and puerile via their speech with everything I have. That doesn’t at all mean I like it, am not offended by it or think it is right. And whatever they do, their right to free speech also opens them up to the consequences of exercising that right.
Murder is not one of them. Violence of any sort is not one of them. We hear a lot about proportionality. What is a proportional response to being offended? Off the top of my head I can think of any number of “proportional” responses – depending on what you find offensive, there are several ways to make that point – condemnation, boycott, peaceful activism, ignoring them, dismissing them, etc. But their right to say what they want is as fundamental a freedom as the consequences that come with it. And that’s how it should be.
Modern Christians, for instance, have seen many examples of profanity and what they’d consider to be blasphemy writ large – in supposed “art” for instance. However, they’ve responded proportionally to the offense.
So Brooks is right in the large sense. I’m not Charlie Hebdo – but I’ll support Charlie Hebdo’s right to do what they did to the death.