One of my friends, after reading my piece on Charlie Hebdo, sent me a link to this:
I Am Not #Charlie (by Josh Healey)
and asked me what I thought of it. So here’s what I think of it.
This is a good piece — better than mine, certainly, in terms of the writing. All of it should be read, but I’d like to respond directly to this:
In a country (France) and an era (post-9/11) where Muslims face rampant discrimination and often violent exclusion, Charlie Hebdo’s cheap shots at Islam added fuel to the racist fire. I understand the desire to make fun of organized religion in all its absurdities, but it’s possible to do that without graphic cartoons of Muhammad being sodomized. That’s not brilliant satire, that’s pornographic hate speech. And I don’t know about you, but I prefer my porn without violent hatred.
Of course, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo didn’t deserve to be killed for their drawings. Not in a million years. But that doesn’t mean that what they drew or published was worth defending in its own right. I love free speech as much as anyone, but I can separate the right of people to have free speech with my support for their actual speech. When the ACLU supported the right of neo-Nazis to march through the suburban shtetl of Skokie, IL, they didn’t go around saying #IAmHitler.
All right: it’s a good essay, but this is a stupid point. No, people did not go around saying #IAmHitler. Because the city authorities who blocked the neo-Nazi march did not do it with AK47s. The neo-Nazis did not die, and so there was not the same desire to express support for them as there was for human beings murdered for their ideas; there was not the same sorrow simply because their march was disallowed in Skokie, because that isn’t the same thing as being shot. Silence, as terrible as it is, is not as bad as death. Don’t equate the two.
But let’s address the main point: can one support the freedom of speech, the right of Charlie Hebdo to print offensive cartoons, but not support their decision to actually do so? Can you love the freedom of speech but not condone the actual speech?
No. You really can’t.
First, let me say this: it’s only hate speech if it was done for the sake of hate (And it’s only pornography if it’s meant to titillate, and I really doubt the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were meant to do that, either. But hey — maybe. Hentai is a thing. Which I also don’t get.). And more importantly, even if it was done for the sake of hate, it’s still speech, it still should be free, it still should be defended. You cannot, in fact, make distinctions between the right to free speech and defending their actual speech. You don’t have to agree with it — but you do have to defend it. (Maybe I’m making too big a deal of the distinction between “not supporting” and “not defending.” But that’s too many layers of abstraction. So blithely on we go!)
No one is saying that the terrorists were right, or even that they had a point, in murdering twelve people at Charlie Hebdo and four more at a kosher market. I will also say that today’s headline, stating that the Belgian police shot and killed two terror suspects as part of a massive anti-terrorism sweep, is also profoundly disturbing to me: as disturbing as were the murders in Ferguson and Coney Island committed by police officers. Because all murders are equivalent, and all are wrong. Those are my principles: no conflict, no rationale, makes the killing of another human being acceptable. It happens, and in some circumstances it is understandable — self-defense, for instance — but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Not ever. I don’t want to die, and I’ll try not to, but I do not have the right to kill someone else to defend my life. Nobody does. It’s an absolute: any line you try to draw leads to finer and finer distinctions, until you’re just making things up, and contradicting yourself. Doesn’t work. So there it is: murder is wrong.
By the same token, all speech — except for the one exception of speech that actively causes harm, meaning the yelling of “fire!” in a crowded theater — is not only acceptable, but defensible. No, the cartoonists should not have been murdered, and I don’t think that Mr. Healey is saying, or hinting, that they deserved it. But neither should they be condemned or chastised for what they said simply because you think they weren’t funny. Or because you think they were racist and hateful, and encouraged more of the same. While I believe strongly that the pen is mightier than the sword, and also that propaganda has been used as a weapon far more often and to greater effect than any metal tool, there is still a distinction to be made between the use of speech to offend (or influence) others and the use of weaponry to harm others. Offense is not harm, and words are not actions. Words by themselves do not cause actions, no matter what those words are, and those who choose to respond to words in violent ways — whether they attack the speaker or the speaker’s target, the “enemy” or the “enemy of my enemy” — they are responsible for their own acts, not the speaker. Charlie Hebdo never hurt anyone, because they only spoke, never acted. And only one of those should be condemned.
Speech, even offensive speech, should be free, always, and that means it should be encouraged even when we don’t like it. Not just allowed: encouraged. Defended. Always. Because offense is as abstract and individual as — well, as faith. You cannot draw a line between this speech as “obnoxious but acceptable” and that speech as “offensive and wrong.” Those distinctions are too individual, too amorphous — too changeable. What is offensive today won’t be offensive tomorrow, and so what seems like a logical distinction today — Jon Stewart is acceptable, but Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher are not — may become an illogical distinction in a very short while. (That is not to say that Rush Limbaugh is not an idiot. He’s an idiot. Who should be on the radio as long as he has something to say. The giant idiot.)
If we are to have free speech — and we must — there can never be a rule against some speech, or against certain kinds of speech. Never. You like this, you don’t like that — sure, say it all you want. But don’t cross the line between opinions and rules: there is no speech that should be blocked or removed or discouraged. None. Ever. One of the worst things I do as a teacher in public schools is tell students “You shouldn’t say that” or “That’s not appropriate to write about.” I do it as little as I can, and I hate it, every time I do it. It must not be done. Speech is who we are, as human beings. It is what we do. Take it away, and there is nothing left but pigs on two legs. Not that I have any problem with pigs (We just got our Esther The Wonder Pig calendar! Check it out!). But I admit it: I like humans more than pigs. I like words better than no words — and that’s the same thing. I believe words are necessary, that humans must be able to speak and to write, in order to be human. I will explain why at greater length some other time, but for now, I’ll say this: the two things that humans do that set us apart from animals, that make us better than animals, are: make art, and seek truth. Both of those require communication. If there is anything that is worth defending, it is free speech: That is what we are: without it, there is no “we.” There is no humanity. And if you end that — what are you protecting?
So while Mr. Healey is right, that I wrote and posted “Je suis Charlie” without knowing what I was defending — because I have never looked at the magazine, never bought it; never even seen the offensive cartoons — I meant it. I still mean it. They were speaking. They were communicating an intention through art: they were performing the highest function, the defining act, of humanity. They were right to do it. Those who murdered them were performing the lowest act humanity is capable of. They were wrong to do it. And I’ll say the same thing for the neo Nazis, the most radical Islamic caliph or mullah there is, and anyone else that speaks — even Rush Limbaugh — so long as he draws a line between speaking and acting.
Killing is wrong. Speaking is right. That’s it.