On Charlie Hebdo and the culture of free expression

By , 11 January, 2015, 1 Comment

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Charlie Hebdo, so I’ll keep this short. I won’t add to the debate about whether the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, or racist to France’s minorities, or just crude, because the best thing about writing online is that you can link to stuff rather than repeat it.

What concerns me is the idea that the only ‘right’ response to the attack is to re-circulate the paper’s cartoons. Jon Chait and Ross Douthat have argued that the right of free expression is meaningful specifically because it protects expression that some find objectionable. And we have to promote that objectionable speech, to show that we’re still protecting it, or the terrorists win.

But the reason liberal societies protect free expression, including offensive speech, is the belief that there’s a market for ideas. And that bad ideas, if they circulate freely, will lose out: people won’t buy those magazines, or watch those TV shows, or download those songs, and the ideas will disappear.

A central component of that ideal is that we have to be as free to not consume or circulate speech as we are to make it in the first place. Insisting that everyone who believes in free expression share a Charlie Hebdo cover or they’ll be an apologist for terror is entirely out of spirit with what free expression means. It is thought policing, which is as fundamentally illiberal when it appears in the pages of New York Magazine as when it comes from the mouths of clerics.

The best response to the attacks is to actively have these debates – about whether the cartoons were good satire or bad satire and why, about how terrorism comes about and what to do about it, about identity in modern Europe – not silence them all as somehow demeaning the dead, because debate is how free societies work out what they believe. If we don’t have debate anymore, we’ve got nothing.

1 Response {+}
  • Shazia Rafi

    thanks for saying this; I’ve been mulling for days how to respond without the obligatory Je Suis Charlie because really Je ne suis pas Charlie. I did find their cartoons offensive, some funny, some not; but they had the right to make them and others had the right to look at them and share them.

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