The Tricky Waters Of Defending Charlie Hebdo

Mark Davis
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Posted: Jan 09, 2015 12:01 AM
The Tricky Waters Of Defending Charlie Hebdo

Let’s start with the easy part: No one should be killed for publishing controversial content. Any religious urge to do so is cut from the worst human cloth. It is not just an American, or even a Western human value to defend satirists against death threats, it is a requirement of basic human decency.

That said, may I take a step beyond the appropriate expressions of support for those who died at the hands of vicious terrorists? That support is based on another no-brainer: Freedom of expression is a moral absolute. No one should self-edit to appease murderous hordes.

But I cannot deny a certain queasiness as another day passes filled with lofty accolades for this publication as if it were not an obnoxious cauldron of hateful sewage devoted to the low exercise of offending as many people as possible.

I know this is irrelevant to the required outcry against the animals who took the lives of their cartoonist tormentors, but the story is not told fully without an assessment of what we are all defending with our “Je Suis Charlie” pronouncements.

Again, may God rest the souls of the victims of Tuesday’s terrorist horror. But does our lament at their death carry a requisite admiration for their craft?

If so, I have to distance.

With the passage of a couple of additional days, maybe my timing— and word choice— is better than that of Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who chose to empathize with ruffled Muslim feathers with innocent blood still fresh on the ground.

Donahue says that while we should never tolerate violent reaction to insult, nor should we tolerate insults that are this provocative.

He is completely wrong in one regard, yet opens the door to a worthy point. If “tolerate” means allowing the existence of something without interference, then yes, we must indeed “tolerate” even the most repellent forms of commentary.

What we do not have to do is admire it.

Donahue’s point is that Charlie Hebdo is a publication fueled by the adolescent rush of infuriating its targets with gross abandon, a crude pursuit that thoughtful people may wish to react to with disapproval.

That takes a few more syllables, but they are vital. I would have gladly stood in a Paris crowd with a pen in the air to show my willingness to fight for unpopular speech. I would then gladly sit for coffee along the Champs-Élysées to criticize the kind of garbage that was Charlie Hebdo’s stock in trade.

This is, of course, a matter of taste. You may appreciate a cartoon of Pope Francis holding a condom over his head as if it were a communion host, saying “This is my body.” I’m guessing millions of Catholics do not. You may appreciate their twitter profile image: a cartoon of “Petit Jesus” popping bug-eyed out of the spread legs of a buck-toothed Virgin Mary. I do not.

On the issue of offense, I recommend a conditional bar. If one seeks to convey a vital, worthy point in a vulgar fashion, my tolerance is high. The style might not be my cup of tea, but I am willing to weigh the intended message in context. However, in cases of sheer puerile urges to get a rise out of people, it is my view that we have quite enough of that, some of it from admittedly talented people, but all of it to the detriment of a civil society.

It is instructive to note the difference in media reaction between the lowbrow “journalism” of Charlie Hebdo and a somewhat less genteel critic of Islam: Koran-burning Florida preacher Terry Jones, who inflamed both Islamic books and liberal sensibilities in 2010 when he communicated his distaste for Muhammad by torching Muslim texts.

He was then metaphorically torched by critics who branded his gesture as a virulent act of hate. But the pages of Charlie Hebdo are worthy not just of defense against violence but outright praise? And why? Because the cartoons are clever and Jones was kind of a goober? For the record, I found the Jones gesture needlessly incendiary (quite literally), and recommended that he find more thoughtful ways to convey his message. Cruel, salacious satirists deserve the same lecture.

In a free society, people get to express themselves however they wish. The public, in turn, gets to react with either praise or revulsion. Disapproval either stems the original expressive instincts, or it does not. Often not, because sometimes the negative reaction was precisely the goal.

Terry Jones was not interested in sparking constructive debate on Islam. He wanted to be noticed in an act of self-absorbed aggression toward Muslim sensibilities. Charlie Hebdo’s goals are not much loftier.

So let us properly mourn the innocent lives lost. Let us properly condemn the primitive evils that compel people to respond to affronts with murder.

But perhaps there is an additional lesson to be gleaned from this tragedy: that while we should never obligate restraint to appease terrorists, we do well to nudge discourse away from the basest urges of today’s shock-addicted commentariat.

The best restraint comes from a desire to aim higher, to engage more constructively— namely, to grow up.

Some will heed that instinct. Many will not. So for those choosing to enjoy the fleeting marketplace rewards of the gutter, we will stand ready with pens to hoist in solidarity should they pay with their lives for their insolence.