Last Saturday night (or, well, I suppose by then it was Sunday morning) I found myself in the kitchen of a Parisian apartment, in the genial company of wine, music, and conversation, and as the latter found its way through the former to the infamous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I took the opportunity to enjoy what may be the most pleasant form of argument– one with someone who agrees with me, but perhaps doesn’t agree with me enough.
By the time I arrived in France, in the week following the attack, the drama of the event had already concluded. The killers were dead, the public had rallied, and all that remained, so it seemed, for the return to business-as-usual in a free society was the million-strong publication, on schedule, of the “journal irresponsable”’s next edition.
I hadn’t written on the subject, and didn’t intend to, because I thought it was well in hand with others. The coverage was thorough, and the case for free speech against such a blatant and obvious foe was well-enunciated by all. I shared common cause, indeed, but it seemed opportunistic to snatch at the low-hanging fruit by echoing what everyone had already demonstrated that they knew, and somewhat hollow simply to issue my praise to the French for their displays of solidarity and support (well-deserved though that praise would be).
But now I think there is something left to be said, in particular to those who equivocate their support for free expression in society, and who nurse an embarrassment over what other people do with it. As always, the radical position must criticize the liberal position.
My friend had submitted, somewhat murkily, that it was a question of different values, and in the lull of our agreement, when I tested the waters by saying, “Yes, but we shouldn’t be afraid to assert that our values are the correct ones,” he winced slightly. He had taken the position that, horrible and intolerable though the attack was, the cartoonists had brought it upon themselves by going too far; “[they] crossed the line,” and worse, they did it “too many times.” I countered with the idea that, however important these “lines” may be to individuals, whether in terms of religious sanctity or of social propriety of any kind, it’s a free society’s job to maintain that no such lines exist, and that these codes of piety can’t be enforced on the group. This much he conceded, but he was still uncomfortable with the idea that the sanctity of other people’s religious faith had been compromised, and he seemed to wish for an admonished societal correction after which we all would be more polite.
When it’s media outlets refusing to reprint the cartoons in question (something that Charlie was brave enough to do with the Danish cartoons in 2005), or a feeble politician failing to assert the values of the society they represent, it’s appropriate to see this position as cowardice. But when I put it directly to my friend whether the capitulations of political sensitivity are motivated by concession or fear, and he said, “concession,” it was true. He was one, like many, who admired religious devotion in itself, and who felt alienated from a society that allows the objects of that devotion to be denigrated.
But it’s different for an individual invited into the home of a religious person, over tea or dinner, perhaps, than it is for a public magazine. Yes, Charlie Hebdo frequently said things that you might not say in the polite company of a devout religious person, things that even I might not say in the same situation. Yes, if we approached the subject we might handle it more gracefully, more delicately for the sake of the person with whom we were speaking. But just because we find such decorum admirable in individuals doesn’t mean we can demand it from society.
Perhaps it’s an effect of the personalized tone of media and advertising, the way mass communications are almost unfailingly directed at the impersonal “you”, but people seem to volunteer the idea that the existence of blasphemous materials in media is the same as running into a mosque and interrupting a prayer service to wave incendiary cartoons in people’s faces. I assure you, it is not.
A secular society doesn’t demand that no one is religious, or that no one treats archaic objects and texts with the reverence for which they were designed. In fact it specifically makes room for, and guards from discrimination, those who do. It simply demands that no one is compelled to do likewise, and that’s what this whole thing is about.
Pluralism, the right to live and let live, is one of our values, and the likes of the murderers in this case and jihadis of all types are not fighting for the right to be treated pluralistically. They are not fighting to exclude only the most acerbic mockeries from public consideration. They are fighting for the day when a death sentence for any criticism at all will be the norm. They are fighting, if their own words can be believed, for the day when their beliefs are the singularity.
That’s what gets lost in the question of sensitivity and the self-flagellation over the fear of some kind of cultural collateral damage. For the thoughtfully and authentically faithful, the brash and pointed satire of this kind may be a nuisance or, at most, a challenge. For the idealized, good-hearted Islamic grandmother who doesn’t care what other people believe and wouldn’t hurt a fly, at worst it might be an undue insult, for which we all must be apologetic. But for the would-be dictatorial administrators of theocratic fascism, it’s the clearest way of saying that their day will never come, and that is too important to do without.
We have to preserve the right, in principal and in practice, to treat these things without sensitivity, without grace, and without a respectful, enlightened, congenial tone. In short, we have to preserve the right to be crass. When it is sinisterly and bullingly implied that we all should genuflect before someone else’s god, we have to say then more than ever that the appropriate response isn’t, “No, thank you.” It’s, “up your nose with a rubber hose, you dirty son of a bitch.”
You don’t have to be Charlie, but in order to maintain the backbone of a free society, you must fight for those who are.
Incidentally, I can report that the demand for that new issue I mentioned has been very high; a lot of places have started waiting lists and many people have been placing orders for copies in advance.
Also, as I searched for images of the cartoons I found I was unsure of which to post– it appears that, unlike the case of the Danish cartoons which were about a specific set of drawings, the killings were in response to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamic cartoons in general; I have reposted what appear to have been the greatest offenders below, and I’ll update the post if I find any that I’ve left out. If you haven’t seen them yet, this is what all the fuss was about:
All images property of Charlie Hebdo.