Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

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  • jpeg  On January 12, 2015 at 10:41 am

    This whole post is just pitch perfect. I don’t get riled very often, but the whole misunderstanding of Freedom of Speech angers me to no end. I was apoplectic about David Brooks’ column. I even blogged about it, I was so angry:

    Friends don’t let friends read David Brooks.

  • Tea & Trumpets  On January 12, 2015 at 10:47 am

    This is an incredibly thoughtful and articulate essay on this very sad story. I think that in the face of tragedy, it can be so hard to hold onto nuance of the sort you share here (on a small scale, it’s perhaps the same way that cruel great uncle becomes softer and kinder when remembered at his funeral) so thank you for placing nuance and complexity firmly within the broader dialogue.

  • eganvarley  On January 12, 2015 at 10:49 am

    I’m afraid you’re wrong on your Charlie Hebdo analysis.

    >>>I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts

    No. I’m French and I can tell you, in this context the word “cons” really means idiots.

    >>>And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

    No. Charlie Hebdo attack everyone. There are satires against jews, christians, muslims, Satires against politicians from all sides. Satires against the army and the police, etc.
    Charlie Hebdo was created by anarchists in the tradition of the “Mai 68” events. They poke fun at everyone.

    • FrancoFile  On January 12, 2015 at 11:03 am

      Exactly this. “Con” is so socially acceptable it’s been part of at least one film title. I’d wager it’s even more dilute than “cunt” in the UK at this point.

    • SamChevre  On January 12, 2015 at 5:36 pm

      I’m not French, but my sense is that to render the level of acceptability and insult in cons in English, “asshole” is probably the best choice. It’s definitely an insult vs a description, but a fairly widely-used and all-purpose insult.

    • Chum Joely  On January 12, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      American living in Montreal with a fair number of friends from France. My interpretation of “con” has settled on “dumbass”– it is insulting and rather vulgar, but not nearly as bad as how “cunt” sounds to me in English.

  • Jeromos  On January 12, 2015 at 11:07 am

    I commend you for managing to avoid the implication that because the cartoons were offensive they kinda asked for it. On the other hand I would ask you to have a look at this link, especially in relation to the Boko Haram cartoon you mention, because much of what has been written about the cartoons has failed to put them into any context.

    • LJ  On January 17, 2015 at 10:58 pm

      I agree with you. I think it’s difficult to understand a lot of the more eyebrow-raising comics without context. I 100% agree that, taken out of context, the Boko Haram comic is extremely offensive; another good example of a similarly shocking comic is here: For those who don’t want to click the link, the article includes an image of a Black French politician depicted as a monkey – clearly an extremely offensive image, and depressingly similar to some depictions of Obama by racists. But this comic was drawn in response to a right-wing image that was posted in earnest, and so the comic is meant to be an attack on the right-wingers that seem to think that this is acceptable; in other words, the image itself is shocking, but is explicitly meant to condemn this type of racist caricature as absurdly offensive. I don’t think that changes the fact that a casual viewing of the image might be shocking, and I think that another poster hit the nail on the head when / she mentioned that privileged audiences are often the ones that can take the leisure of dissecting a potentially inflammatory image. Ultimately, the comics, at face value, might be upsetting, but I think this is a little similar to trying to put “in-character” Stephen Colbert’s words into “real-person” Stephen Colbert’s mouth: someone unfamiliar with the Stephen Colbert character might understandably be confused or offended, but a white Westerner is unlikely to make the same mistake. However, I don’t think that CH can be ultimately accused of “punching down” and Doug, I think your article is a little off the mark this time.

  • suesista  On January 12, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    I think we often don’t understand the context of these French cartoons, and have put our own stamp on them based on the current American atmosphere of racial polarity. After living for a while in France, I came to know that country as possessing a rollicking and free-wheeling attitude toward politics which is devoid of any PC, and we’re attempting to interpret the Hebdo stuff through our own lens.
    I don’t like them, consider them creepy, unnecessarily provocative and puzzlingly badly-drawn (although I guess that’s intentional)–and am also shocked and saddened by the murders, and what that portends for all people.
    Great post, Mr. Muder–thanks.

  • Michael Wells  On January 12, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you for making the very important distinction between the right to express an opinion (in this instance, satire) and the value of that opinion. Unfortunately, many of the discussions about the Charlie Hedbo and Boko Haram murders have omitted the critical factor of religion, not merely Islam but religion in general. When people believe that they have received the Revealed Truth, perfect, eternal and immune to challenge by evidence, they are able to justify any action, no matter how reprehensible. History reveals this about every religion, not merely Islam. As noted by a columnist in today’s Guardian: ” It is within the ranks of that religion that this particular strain of violence has found inspiration and justification.”
    Abandonment of reason and evidence is at the core of every fundamentalist religion. Boko Haram has been translated as “Western education is forbidden.” “Blasphemy” is not about truth but merely an offense against a religious belief.
    Finally, you state that Bill Maher had no basis for his claim that significant numbers of muslims support use of violence against civilians in some circumstances. While the issue is complicated and the findings not without qualification, the Pew Center found in its 2007 survey that: “However, in some countries, substantial minorities of Muslims say attacks on civilians are at least sometimes justified to defend Islam from its enemies; in the Palestinian territories, a majority of Muslims hold this view.”

    • weeklysift  On January 17, 2015 at 9:59 am

      Maher jumps from that 2007 survey about an abstract question to claim that hundreds of millions of Muslims specifically support the Charlie Hebdo attack, when virtually ALL the public statements by Muslims and Muslim groups denounced it. That clinging to preconceived ideas in defiance of actual evidence is practically a definition of bigotry.

  • Nancy FB  On January 12, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Wonderful! I read your blog most weeks and often share it. Now my mother reads it. You are on point! Thanks for being such a great analyst.

  • Taash  On January 12, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    I understand your point, but I’m afraid I must disagree. We in the US don’t have anything really comparable to Charlie Hebdo, and thus no true frame of reference, so we have a lack of understanding that hasn’t been bridged.

    Then there is this: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend — to the death — your right to say it”. THAT is my line in the sand. You don’t have to like what Charlie Hebdo prints. You don’t have to agree with it. But unless we are all willing to be silenced forever, we have to champion our right to say what we think.

  • Dan  On January 13, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    If a woman goes home with a man she just met, and he rapes her; and I say to her that she in NO WAY deserved to be raped, and what that man did to her was unforgivable; but that maybe she used bad judgement in going home with him; is that ‘victim blaming?’ If so, what is the distinction between that and your statements about Charlie Hebdo?

    • weeklysift  On January 17, 2015 at 7:08 am

      The difference between the woman and the cartoonists is that the cartoonists knew exactly the risks they were running. The “bad judgment” comment implies the woman was foolish, while I think the Charlie cartoonists were courageous.

      A better analogy would be to a soldier who volunteers to fight in what I believe is an unworthy war — but he obviously thinks it is worthy — and dies in that war. I honor his personal courage and respect his sacrifice. But if you ask me to identify with him, to say in effect “I am G. I. Joe”, then I have to ask if that means I have to support the war now. If it does, I can’t say it.

  • Dangerous Meredith  On January 13, 2015 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks for teasing out the issues here. Excellent piece of analysis.

    • weeklysift  On January 17, 2015 at 6:19 am

      I’ll mention that article next week. There’s an article I want to pair it with, if I can remember enough keywords to Google it up. The point of that article was that privileged people often assume that their own intention is paramount, and so anyone who takes offense at what they say is just wrong. Less privileged people don’t have that luxury.

  • Andrew Hidas  On January 16, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    So if I may boil this finely nuanced piece down to a kind of guiding philosophy, it might be: “Just because something ‘can’ be said does not mean it ‘should’ be said, though I will defend to the utmost your right to say it.”

  • Georges le curieux  On January 26, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    The better translation of “cons” might be “fools”; “stooges” would be a close second.
    Topics move on. I’ll just add that Charlie was (and may still be) supposed to be about challenging institutions, and authorities ex machina (and ex quidam), restoring and defending the importance of the individual. It is about denying respect to Tartuffes.


  • By True Blasphemy | The Weekly Sift on January 12, 2015 at 10:44 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?“ […]

  • By You Should Read The Weekly Sift | A Little Rebellion on January 12, 2015 at 10:51 am

    […] latest is Am I Charlie? Should I Be?  It is pitch perfect and not only gets to the heart of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but drill into […]

  • By Unreasonable Debts | The Weekly Sift on January 19, 2015 at 11:51 am

    […] adds value to my articles. A good example of what I have in mind is last week’s “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?” While many commenters agreed with my main points, several had thoughtful disagreements […]

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