Brief thoughts on Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech

Satire depends heavily on the cultural context in which it was made. Charlie Hebdo is certainly a leftist rag, and certainly satire, and certainly understood as such within France’s cultural context. However, there are some universals about satire that people, time and again, forget.

The first and most important thing to remember is that satire can damage just as much as the original offense, and sometimes more. Charlie Hebdo’s satire was about taking some aspect of the news cycle — some politician or celebrity who held racist and sexist views — and illustrating the logical end result of those views. In a context where a great deal of damage has been done by outright propaganda by outright racists and sexists, where “Evil Banker Jew” and “Monkey-Like Black Person” are well-worn tropes, depicting them as though you’re resurrecting the trope in order to scandalize the person who still holds those views is fraught and potentially more damaging to the person who’s damaged by the original racism.

The second thing to remember about satire is that it is a powerful weapon, to be wielded carefully so as to avoid splash damage. Attacking a class — or being perceived to be attacking a class — that is already under siege by society, is “punching down”. Even if you’re trying to shame the person who’s holding an antisemitic or anti-black or anti-woman view, you could very well legitimize or normalize attacks on that class of person by increasing the number of instances where it’s perceived to be acceptable. Increasing the frequency of a meme does not NECESSARILY legitimize it, but it CAN.

In that context, what Charlie Hebdo was doing in its skewering racist and sexist right-wing politicians, even in the cultural context of France, was still potentially damaging to those people otherwise damaged by racist and sexist politicians.

And yet, they should be free to do it. Just like neo-nazis should be free to continue to congregate and speak freely, so that we can see their hatred on display and know whom to avoid and whom to keep a close eye on just in case they decide to go on an anti-Jew or anti-black killing spree, and just like MRAs should be absolutely free to continue to spout their hatred against women and we should be thus watchful of them in case there is another Anders Breivik or Marc Lepine among their numbers, so too should Charlie Hebdo continue to speak freely. And the people criticizing them should be free to criticize them without fear of escalating reprisal.

The line, of course, is actually abrogating others’ rights. You can propagandize and incite to violence, but when violence is committed, or other civil rights are abridged as a result of your actions, then you are responsible. Freedom of speech does not absolve one of responsibility for that speech, and since all actions are inherently political and have consequences on society, what you do will have results visited upon you. The question is whether the results that are visited upon you are commensurate with the actual import of the actions.

And nobody deserves to be murdered for their crimes, in my estimation, given that there is no hell or heaven — if killing is a crime that our societies can all agree upon, then killing someone even for killing others should likewise be a crime. Even in the context of war, even in the context of kill-or-be-killed, killing someone is a very final action. Some killings are certainly justifiable, of course, e.g. self-defense and prevention of further harm, but aside from having their lives snuffed out there’s no chance to actually have justice on this earth when the unjust are dead and buried. I’d rather see criminals who perpetrate heinous crimes like mass-murder put on trial and put behind bars, every time. And I’d rather see the criminal justice system treat murders by the folks supposed to police our actions treated equivalently, because apparently some people have grossly different ideas of justice and whether or not a certain person “needed killing”.

Saying Charlie Hebdo was “asking for” half their staff to be murdered is itself odious, and it betrays that groups like the Catholic League are every bit as evil as the fundamentalist Muslims that carried out the attack — that they believe the correct consequences for (even racist or anti-religious) teasing is murder. They deserve our sternest criticism, even when we might have criticized Charlie Hebdo for coarsening discourse by its propaganda-like depiction of Islam in efforts to skewer the very radicals who ultimately attacked and killed them.

Nobody deserves to be murdered for a drawing.

You’d think that was an easy moral line to draw, but for some, evidently not.

Brief thoughts on Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech