You know about the terrorist attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. Twelve people were killed and 11 more wounded when gunmen attacked the magazine's offices and five more were killed and 10 more were wounded during the hunt for the murderers - not counting the three suspects who were killed. It was the deadliest act of terrorism in France in over 50 years.
The cause, supposedly, apparently, was the magazine's habit of publishing cartoons mocking Islam in general and Muhammed in particular. That seems pretty sound, considering that the attackers shouted "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") and that the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula later claimed responsibility for the attack, although US and European intelligence sources say they have no evidence that the group organized the attack and the claim may be opportunistic.
In the days since, the phrase "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") has become a rallying cry for free speech and for the recognition that free speech must include the right to be rude, crude, and insulting.
But it has also sparked a discussion, debate, argument, whatever you care to call it not about the legal limits of free speech, but the ethical limits of free speech. The limits of what for lack of a better term I'll call acceptable speech. Not legally acceptable, ethically acceptable. And I don't even mean the bland, vapid notion of "responsible" speech but of acceptable, socially acceptable, speech.
Because this is not the first time for the magazine. It makes a practice of being rude and crude; it refers to itself as "irresponsible" and "atheistic" and makes a regular habit of mocking religion and religious figures, often in very crude ways - for example, it has published cartoons of nuns performing oral sex.
It's not even first time it's been attacked by disturbed wackos fantasizing they were defending their religion: The magazine's offices were firebombed in late 2011 after running a spoof issue “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammed honoring an Islamist party’s victory in Tunisian elections.
In the time since, the magazine has published a number of caricatures of Muhammed. Which is where the ethical issue starts to get sticky. The magazine, we need to be aware, is deliberately offensive.
Something else of which we need to be aware, as I just learned recently, there is no ban on images of the Prophet in the Quran. Those bans are drawn from the Hadith, which contains reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammed. And there is more than one version of the Hadith. Nonetheless, many Muslims accept the Hadith as authoritative with regard to religious practice and so believe that any depiction of Muhammed, even the most respectful, is inherently offensive .
For those of us who are not Muslim, it can be hard to understand the depth of feeling about it, to grasp just how offensive this can be. Maybe try to imagine the reaction of a devout Catholic who is faced with a cartoon of, again, nuns performing oral sex and then try to imagine that on top of that there is a prohibition in Catholicism on any depiction of nuns. The sense that this would seem not just mockery but a direct attack on your religion would be hard to avoid.
Charlie Hebdo strives to provoke that sort of outrage. Consciously and deliberately.
Now I have to make a quick aside because I know that some people will by this point be ready to accuse me of blaming the victim, of saying that the attacks were the magazine's own fault.
No. Period. Absolutely not. Don't even go there.
You want to see victim-blaming, go to Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who declared that Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo and who was among those killed, “didn’t understand the role he played in his [own] tragic death” and that had he "not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive."
For myself, it should not be necessary to say but, unhappily, in cases like this it often - make that always - is: Offense, no matter how deep, no matter how profound, does not justify violence. It does not justify attacks, it does not justify firebombs, it does not justify murder. As Mr. Spock so pointedly put it, "I do not approve. I understand."
Or, as the well-known phrase has it, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That's often attributed to Voltaire, but actually came from Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of him. No matter, the point remains: It is not required that we agree with or approve Charlie Hebdo's practice of giggling, sophomoric, mockery to condemn the attack.
The question I'm considering here is not one of the attack but one raised by the attack, one of are there limits to free speech - again, not legal limits, but ethical limits - and if so, what might they be. And frankly I resent those who imply that by raising that question I or anyone else who does it is making excuses for terrorism or proposing cowardice as an editorial principle. That is utter and complete crap.
By the way, something else I want to insert here is that contrary to what you might like to think, Christians are not immune to that sort of outrage. For one thing, it's hard to get through a single day without some flake declaring that Christianity is under attack in the US. More seriously, consider the case of American artist and photographer Andres Serrano. He did a series of photographs involving classical statuettes submerged in various sorts of fluids. One such work was called "Immersion (Piss Christ)" and showed a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. Now, you couldn't tell it was urine if he hadn't said it was and put it in the title; it just looks like a rich, amber-colored liquid that actually gives the crucifix a sort of mysterious air. Nonetheless, that's what it is.
When it was exhibited in New York 1989, he and the work were attacked by people including US senators; he received hate mail and death threats; he lost grants. When a print was shown in Australia in 1997, the Catholic church there tried to get it legally banned from being exhibited; when that failed someone tried to rip it off the wall; when that failed two people attacked it with a hammer, leading the gallery to cancel the show. In 2011, a print was vandalized "beyond repair" by Christian protesters while on display in Avignon, France.
And we must never forget the firebombings, the shootings, the murders aimed at abortion clinics and the doctors, nurses, and other people who work in them done in the name of upholding church teachings on abortion. Christians are not immune to offense-driven violence.
With that said, let's get back to the question at hand. Charlie Hebdo in effect takes the position that anything goes; that everything is within bounds, nothing is off-limits, nothing is unacceptable.
|Is this acceptable?|
Here's one that I thought of, although not being a cartoonist I'll have to describe it rather than show it: It depicts a young black man shooting a cop while saying "I feared for my life - he reached for his waistband." Surely, no one could object because nothing is off-limits.
But are any of those off-limits? Do any of those go so far, become so offensive, that just on the basis of decency or even just good taste that you would decline to publish them, decline to approve them, decline to declare them socially acceptable? If so, if you would say of any one of those that they reach a point where the person who published them should not - again I emphasize not legally could not but ethically should not - have done so, then you agree there are ethical limits.
Despite the "anything goes" vibe it strives to create, even Charlie Hebdo agrees: The magazine fired a writer in 2009 for an anti-Semitic article.
The kind of mockery and ridicule in which Charlie Hebdo engages are important and valuable weapons - when you are punching up, not down (or even across). Remember, this is a French publication, published in France, in French, for a French audience. In France, Muslims are still a small minority, no more than 5-10% of the population. You want to punch up in France? Go after the Catholic Church. Go after Christianity. That is punching up.
To attack Muslims, especially on a regular basis, to persistently ridicule their religion and culture, is to punch down, to attack the weak. To punch down, to attack a minority population, is wrong - morally and ethically.
What's more, punching down promotes no form of freedom except the freedom to be an obnoxious jerk. What punching down does promote - and provoke - is bigotry. Europe today is seeing a re-emergence of bigotry, not only anti-Muslim but anti-Semitic. In an atmosphere like that, you need to be extra careful about who your targets are. Not because of fear of the law. Not because of fear of attack. But just because of wanting to be a decent human being.
The magazine has made what I think is a clear effort in that direction: The new cover shows a tearful Muhammed holding a sign reading "Je suis Charlie" under a headline that translates to "All is forgiven," which the cartoonist said is meant to be addressed to the attackers. I think the magazine has done well here: The editors and staff have found a way to be true to themselves and to the spirit of the magazine while still expressing an understanding of the world in which they and we live. And there should be no limit to that.
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