Here we are again, after the horrible events in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, having to distinguish between exposing prejudice to open ridicule on the one hand and, on the other hand, defending free speech. The problem is that many liberals, of which I am one, reflexively defend free speech but condemn all sorts of particular sorts of free speech, including “hate speech,” various disturbing imagery, child pornography, shouting fire in a crowded theatre, et al. This makes us look like hypocrites, and it’s this hypocrisy that empowers our enemies.
I don’t want to sound flippant; the tragically lost lives in Paris surprised me by driving me to tears, and it’s going to take more than one or two sentences to explain what I mean. Last month on Facebook, I mentioned seeing The Interview, and one of my friends groused that she now had to see a film that she would never otherwise see, just because of her patriotism and commitment to free speech. After she said she didn’t like the film, I commented, “Oh well, back to drawing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed and listening to Pussy Riot albums, right?” I was half-joking, but I’m not sure we haven’t seen a bit of liberal two-faced-ness in all these “Je Suis Charlie” tweets and Facebook profile changes that didn’t actually dare to reproduce any of Charlie Hebdo’s imagery of Mohammed. Oh sure, we are Charlie, but we don’t really care for their satire that veers on racism. I heard some similar things about The Interview: why is Sony stirring the pot? Why “go after” a non-white head of state?
Because we can. Because when we lose the right to be prejudiced, particularly when making fun of very powerful figures (like Mohammed and Kim Jong-un), we lose everything. Because above all, we must say WE ARE NOT AFRAID.
Kenan Malik offers the correct case, well in line with sentiments by Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, here. Yes, it’s a very tricky concept, almost as tricky as “racism without racists,” and that’s one reason that people have had trouble accepting it. In fact, the general reaction is:
Are you blaming liberals for terrorism? How dare you?
No, not blaming liberals for terrorism. No. Terrorists are to blame for terrorism. Not everything can be reduced to identifying and humiliating a few bad apples. The first concept to understand is that sometimes the global village has issues that can’t be solved by just chasing a few people out of it.
I think people like Malik, Sullivan, and Savage generally do great work on these issues, but I would like to contribute by giving you something that they don’t – a list of names:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Saul Bellow, Cliven Bundy, Dan Cathy, Stephen Colbert, Riley Cooper, Paula Deen, Junot Diaz, Rahm Emanuel, 50-Cent, David Gilmour, Roy Hibbert, D.L. Hughley, Don Imus, Larry Johnson, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, V.S. Naipaul, Joakhim Noah, Brett Ratner, Michael Richards, Chris Rock, Laura Schlessinger, Shirley Sherrod, Donald Sterling, Amare Stoudamire
One thing that these people have in common is that they made some questionable statements which offended thousands of people. Go here to see the statements. Another thing they have in common is that their right to make those statements was never abridged and will never be abridged in the future. Should they have been penalized? Fired? In some cases, sure! Nobody has a right to a particular job, and most of these people command the salaries they do partly because of their roles as public figures. Making prejudiced statements falls under the heading of doing their job less than professionally. But these people were not censored and never will be. Their speech was, is, and always will be protected even as their sentiments may lead to professional consequences. Nuanced, yes, but it’s this nuanced reality that we must fight for.
As President Obama said regarding the racist words of Donald Sterling,
“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk.”
Obama’s statement suggests that if you give people enough rope, they’ll hang themselves out to ridicule. He’s right. Censorship is not necessary in any of these cases and is in fact antithetical to our democratic values. Ben Franklin’s statement “I may not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is arguably more relevant now than during the 18th century in which he said it.
But wait, you say, what if thousands of cartoonists make jokes about the Prophet Muhammed? Isn’t that asking for trouble? If it is, that’s the sort of trouble we’re already in, and backing down reduces us to defending only some free speech and not others…and we can’t afford that. We can’t afford to let Kim Jong-un or Al-Qaeda tell us what kind of content we can produce.
Child porn is illegal not because it’s “offensive” but because it shows children being abused, and abusing children is illegal. Censorship in the case of clear and present danger? Okay, but I hope you’re following the law and letting a judge decide what that is. The “fire in a crowded theater” canard has been endlessly deconstructed, for example here. But let’s just say that citing a century-old, discredited Supreme Court opinion (and there are many of those) isn’t the best way to make your case. One can make a case that yelling “fire in a crowded theater” isn’t even speech in the sense of expressing an opinion; sure, it’s something you do with your vocal cords, which it has in common with shouting in a child’s ear for an hour, which constitutes abuse. The Constitution clearly wanted to protect opinions, statements, assertions (yes, even ones that we’d now consider anti-English), not just your unexpurgated barbaric yawp. Nuance!
The bottom line is that during this very depressing century, certain radicals have succeeded at fomenting fighting within Western civilization about the very meaning of Western civilization. And that’s why we have to fight to be able to name and shame the prejudiced – like everyone on that list – on the one hand, and fight against censorship on the other hand. We have to know what we’re fighting for if we expect to eventually prevail.