Sunday, August 30, 2015

Violent retaliation against speech is abhorrent, and that’s really all we need to say when it happens

On January 11th, two maniacs killed 11 people and injured 11 more at the Paris headquarters of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The men were avenging what they saw as blasphemy in the magazine’s cartoonish depictions of the Prophet Mohammad, which from their skewed Islamist perspective warranted the employee’s execution. This inspired a massive outpouring of public support for the martyred satirists, in Paris and across the world, under the famous Je Suis Charlie tagline. Unfortunately, it also inspired a litany of copycat attacks in a Paris grocery and a Denmark synagogue, claiming 7 more lives.

To most people, the only possible response to these murders is horrified, unqualified, full throated condemnation. Unfortunately, that was not the response of very many commentators on the political left.

As Anthony Fisher of Reason.com noted in this searing compilation, too much of the post-attack commentary was marked by an exasperating pattern of conflicted eggshell-walking, a response I like to call “I don’t condone violence, but…”. In each case, “cursory denunciations of the murders [were] followed by caveats” that strongly insinuated the Charlie Hebdo staffers at least partly shared in the blame for their own demise:

  • Richard Seymour of Jacobin took the opportunity to (inaccurately) remind us that “irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist.”
  • Jacob Canfield at The Hooded Utilitarian agreed, devoting most of his column to “sneering at Charlie Hebdo's white editorial staff for having the temerity to satirize Muslims and their prophet.” He wrote that the slain editor Stephane Charbonnier was a “racist asshole” for saying that “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me” after his offices had been firebombed. He wrote (and again, wrongly) that the “cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia,” and lamented that since cartoonists are often white men, “[c]alling fellow cartoonists TO ARMS is calling other white men to arms against already marginalized people.”
  • Sex Critical Feminist Kitty Stryker opined that while “I’m generally pretty anti-censorship…I do not believe that racist, homophobic language is satire. I think it’s abusive, and I think it punches down, harshly and often.” Consequentially, she reached this squirm-inducing conclusion: “I don’t think that shooting up the Charlie Hebdo office was ethically Right with a capital R, ok? But I do think it’s understandable.” (No word yet on whether Stryker thinks it was potentially right with a lower-case r).
  • Bill Donahue of the Catholic League just skipped all the wish-wash about condemning the killings and put the blame directly where he thought it lie: with the editor and his “narcissism."“Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him."
  • And finally, USA Today published a (fittingly) provocative Op-Ed from a radical Islamic cleric named Anjem Choudary, who blamed the government for failing to censor Charlie Hebdo. He accompanied this argument with the casual, off-hand observation that “because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”

In the weeks that followed, I had hoped those on the left would recognize victim blaming at its most egregious, and denounce these initial reactions as wrongheaded. Alas, the progressive conception of victimhood is mighty warped these days. Since Fisher’s compilation, there’s been a lot more where that came from.

Former NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos believed it was wrong for media outlets to republish Hebdo’s cartoons as a means of explaining the context of the attacks, for very bad reasons. (Eugene Volokh, one of the premiere free-speech defenders in the world, had this to say in response.)

Meanwhile, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau used the bulk of his acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award to criticize Charlie Hebdo and those who supported it. He lamented that “free speech absolutists were unchastened” in the wake of violence in Denmark. He accused Charlie Hebdo of “ridiculing the non-privilege…punching downward” and “attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons.” Amazingly, he insinuated that under French law, they should have been prosecuted for “hate speech, which…directly incites violence” (demonstrating a remarkable misunderstanding of that legal doctrine, might I add). Finally, he concluded that “At some point, free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.”

Thankfully, both
Volokh and fellow free-speech champion Greg Lukianoff of FIRE responded to these remarks. So did David Frum, who may have done it best:

“To fix the blame for the killing on the murdered journalists, rather than the gunmen, Trudeau invoked the underdog status of the latter…since the gunmen were “non-privileged,” the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.”

Before I had a chance to respond myself, there was another attack – this time closer to home. In May, two gunmen opened fire at a “Draw Mohammad” contest in Garland, Texas, wounding an officer, before being killed themselves by security forces. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the media reaction just minutes after the news broke was rather more conflicted than it should have been.

New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi’s response was to tweet the following:

“Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a “Muhammad drawing contest”?

Her next tweet read “At a time of such violence, sweet words from Dalai Lama’s spokesman on Tavis Smiley show: Consider the transformative power of compassion.” Sadly, it appears she was not advising compassion for the people who were shot at for drawing a picture.

But the straw that broke my back and prompted this lengthy, rambling post was
this exchange on between Fox’s Megyn Kelly and Huffington Post’s Richard Fowler. After schooling Fowler on constitutional case law, Kelly declared “When two Jihadi’s show up with guns, the relevant question at that time is not ‘what were they saying?’”. To which Fowler responded:

“If they had never had that event, the Jihadi’s never would have showed up!”

Now, I don’t know if Richard Fowler is actually representative of any sizable portion of the American population, or if FOX news dressed him up as a stooge to make an ass of himself on their program. They’ve been known to do that before. But seeing as Fowler is employed by the Huffington Post, and they quoted his arguments somewhat favorably in that hyperlink, I’m going to presume they don’t see anything wrong with that quote. So let’s imagine what the left’s reaction to this sentence would be were it used in a separate context, shall we?

If a bunch of right wing Christian fanatics decided to shoot up a gay pride parade, would “if they had never had that event, the fanatics never would have showed up!” be considered an appropriate response?

If those same fanatics decided to bomb an abortion clinic, would “if they had never offered those abortions, the fanatics never would have showed up!” be seen as an appropriate response?

If someone in the KKK had decided to open fire on a Black Lives Matter march, and Bill O’Reilly went on his program and declared that “had they never sympathized with criminals, they never would have been shot!”, would that have been well received by the folks at the Huffington Post?

Listen, I understand that debates about free speech are not going to go away just because one side pulls the “our side just got shot at!” card. There are many distinctions between what we can say and what we should say. There’s nothing wrong with people who don’t like Charlie Hebdo. I probably wouldn’t buy it myself. Politely declining to join in the celebration of their work (as this guy did) or reminding us that they can’t be immune from criticism just because they’re dead (as this gal did) is okay with me. Condemning the murder does not preclude you from also condemning the publication’s content.

It is okay to believe that both killing and satire-which-punches-down are wrong.

It’s just that the gravity of one of those wrongs so far dwarfs the other that using the occasion of the former as an opportunity to criticize the latter belies a horridly misplaced set of priorities.

In the wake of a mass murder, or even an attempted mass murder, the public’s primary sympathies should be one-directional. Slandering the slain before the ink has dried on their obituaries deliberately deflects that sympathy by rekindling relatively petty tribal animosities towards the victims. It’s akin to a Red Sox fan muttering “Yankees still suck” upon hearing that Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS: that is, bitterly sulking that circumstances have required the media to say anything positive about your rivals in a culture war.

Eugene Volokh had an even better analogy: asking “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the theater?” Like the on-stage performance at Ford’s Theater on the night President Lincoln was assassinated there, the tactfulness of the cartoons which prompted the murder of 11 people is so completely inconsequential to the essence of what happened there that bringing it up at this particular moment is more insensitive than anything Charlie Hebdo ever published. It indicates the commentator is so inescapably committed to a singular narrative of who oppresses whom that even momentary departures from that framework strike them as irritating distractions from the only story they know how to write. As Nick Gillespie explained, our opinions about Geller or Charb are “simply besides the much larger and more important point that free speech is free speech and should never be challenged by the thug's veto or bullets or violence.”

Canfield wrote that “To simplify the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices as “Good, Valiant Westerners vs. Evil, Savage Muslims” is not only racist, it’s dangerously overstated.” It is neither of those things, but in fact a fair and accurate (if unnecessarily specific) description of what happened. There’s something both valiant and good about those who risk their lives in order to deliberately defy violent threats of censorship, whether or not they are Western. And whatever you think of those killed in the attack, the people who waged it were certainly, in that instant, “evil, savage Muslims,” just as the Nazi’s were evil, savage people who happened to be Christian.

Free speech is a complex matter on which reasonable people can disagree, but there is no nuance in these particular incidents. These incidents pertain to an issue on which there is consensus here in the West: killing people for what they say is never okay. That there exist enormous swaths of the world wherein that truth remains contested reminds us where the most important progress is yet to be made.

The central takeaway from what happened to Charlie Hebdo is that we have figured something out which those parts of the world have not. We are not better than them as people, but on the issues of free speech and tolerance, our ideas are better, no matter how that makes them feel. This is not their fault, but it’s true and needs reckoning with. That is the story: that the interests of global justice are better served by catching them up to speed than they are quibbling about the details amongst ourselves. Whatever we resolve in our advanced, privileged and relatively trivial Western discourse about the best direction in which to figuratively punch, what’s most important is that we find a way to convince the rest of the world to stop literally punching, or worse. The killing must stop, full stop.

Also, a relevant Onion cartoon.