After reading Dave Freer’s piece, it seemed like today would be a good day to compose my own thoughts in kind. Not because the Charlie Hebdo massacre is singularly horrific, but because the massacre has peeled back (once again) the tinfoil wrapper on a notion I find particularly pernicious: that the artists and writers who died in the Charlie Hedbo office should have known better than to offend Muslims. Incite them. Cause them to get angry. Angry enough to kill. Which is a lot like saying, “You’re free to speak, but you’re not free from consequences!” Doubtless you’ve read or heard some variation on that one too? From people eager to see artists, writers, pundits, and speakers punished professionally for any number of politically correct sins?
Consider the case of Orson Scott Card, who is now the #1 supervillain in a bizarro world comic book called: GAY SUPER JUSTICE WARRIORS. Card’s been kicked off projects for expressing his beliefs. The companies who’ve hired (and then fired) Card, were bowing to pressure from protesters. The activists smugly tell us Card deserves it, because Card is a homophobe. Which is apparently worse than anything imaginable. So bad, that Card’s participation in the marketplace — as a creator — must be challenged. He must be shut out. Blacklisted. Made to economically suffer for his WRONG WRONG WRONG thoughts, which he wrongly believed he could commit to paper.
I mean, Card should have known better!
Consider the (in)famous Ayaan Hirsi Ali, notorious firebrand and critic of dangerous religious dogmatism; specifically, Islamist jihadist dogmatism. She’s had speaking engagements at colleges cancelled (by the colleges themselves) after complaints and protests against her were lodged. As with Card, or perhaps I should say, ironically also like Card, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is accused of being a “phobe.” (Remember: “phobe” is the worst thing ever!) In her case, it’s Islamophobia, which would seem to be code for, “Astute analysis which dares to call the death cult of Islamist jihadism a death cult.” (And if you need to figure out what makes “Islam” and “Islamism” two different things, I refer you here.)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali should have known better!
Freedom of speech really is the most difficult freedom to live with, because we keep finding ways to screw it up. If we’re not banning dirty words, we’re banning porn. If we’re not banning porn, we’re banning religious symbols and the ten commandments. If we’re not banning the ten commandments, we’re banning ist words filled with ism on our college campuses. We kick writers and artists off jobs. We had the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Actors and directors in Hollywood were put out of work for supposedly being commies. Sometimes, they were out of work for decades. It financially and professionally ruined them. We now enjoy the Politically Correct scare and Social Justice Warriors. Again, we see pressure to put people out of work. Ruin them professionally. Or worse. We see excuse-making for events like Charlie Hebdo: they should have known better!
So here’s my contention: you cannot have “safe” speech at the same time you have free speech. You cannot punish a writer or an artist or an intellectual content creator of any stripe, for any reason, without basically admitting that you’re willing to make things unsafe for people you disagree with, in an effort to protect and coddle your own side of the argument. Which means you’re not really in favor of the freedom to speak. You are in favor of your freedom to dispense your thoughts and ideas, just as long as people you don’t like (or who create things that make you angry) don’t get to have the same right.
Because your enemies in the markeptlace of ideas should know better!
Well, actually, nobody should have to “know better” in a society that pretends to prize liberty.
Let me explain.
If you as an individual consumer want to stop financially contributing to somebody who creates products you might otherwise buy, except you think the producer is (insert badness here), that’s your right as the consumer. You must follow your conscience.
But if you as an individual consumer think you have the right to stop other people from buying those same products from that same producer, because you think the producer is (insert badness here), you’re crossing an unfortunate line. And I think you need to strongly reconsider your actions and objectives accordingly.
Ditto for mobbing companies or newspapers or magazines, demanding that Employee X be terminated for (insert badness here.) Again, ditto for waging ideological war on campuses, getting speaking engagements cancelled because the speaker is guilty of (insert badness here.)
And it shouldn’t even be necessary to talk about how no civilized human being should believe (s)he has the right to take another human life, simply because the person you have killed (or wish to kill) has ideas you consider off-limits. Wrong. Offensive. Blasphemous. No matter if they put those ideas down on paper (even if it’s digital paper) you, as a civilized human being, are robust enough to withstand whatever it is you find offensive, or even terrible.
Because trying to silence others — ban them, kick them off jobs, get them cancelled or fired or even killed — is an admission of intellectual and moral cowardice.
I will say this again, so there’s no mistaking my statement: banning people from work, kicking them off jobs, or out of magazines and papers, or even inciting or seeking their deaths, is cowardice. It is an admission that you believe your ideas are too fragile to stand on their own in a raucous, polyglot environment. That you believe you have the moral right to decide for others what they can and cannot see, or hear, or buy.
I find it more than a little sad that the ideological children of men and women who battled “right wing” oppression of free speech in the 20th century, now actively and with clean consciences, seek to enforce a decidedly left wing version of same. Because the world must be kept “safe” from ist and ism. The definitions of which have been made so absurdly broad, they can be applied to practically anything or anyone, at any time, for any reason. Just make the shit up. It’s all good. Safety demands action. The badthinkers must be brought down!
Only, you’d best be careful. History has shown us time and again that the treadmill of “corrective action” ultimately eats its own. The agitator yelling for “safing” today, is the victim who will be “safed” into silence tomorrow. Because no matter who you are, there is always somebody who’s going to be pissed off at you for something. Regardless of whether or not you think you’re on the “right” side or you have the “correct” ideas about things. If you open the door for yourself, and give yourself permission to silence others, you will in turn be silenced. And if not you, your friends, your co-workers, your family, etc. Sooner or later, that snake’s going to come back and bite you. And it’s a venomous little son-of-a-bitch.
So please, let’s dispense with any talk about how Charlie Hebdo should have known better. It doesn’t matter if that publication was crude or caustic or deliberately antagonistic. Liberty demands that people be free to be rude or caustic or deliberately antagonistic. Satire (poking fun) is a big piece of the bedrock of Western Enlightenment. You couldn’t do satire behind the Iron Curtain, otherwise the NKVD or KGB or any other dozen “secret” police forces would round you up and shoot you, send your children to the gulag, march your spouse off to be “re-educated” on a rack in some dim-bulb dungeon. Here in the United States, you can make fun of the President six ways from Thursday, and nobody can do anything to you about it. Hell, you can turn your entire stand-up comic routine into a free-for-all political bash session, and you will make good money at it!
Satire in Iran? Satire in North Korea, or China, or Cuba? Dangerous stuff, that. Best be careful. Or brave. The two seem mutually exclusive, when it comes to the arena of thought.
So think twice, oh ye of the Western Enlightenment legacy, before you excuse the slaughter of “Islamophobe” cartoonists. Before you decide Orson Scott Card should be driven out of work. Before you write a nasty e-mail to your college demanding that Ayaan Hirsi Ali be cancelled. It takes guts and maturity to admit that you’re big enough to take it. To take seeing your sacred cows questioned. Perhaps even slaughtered? They’re your cows, after all. Not somebody else’s. And you’ve got every right to return the favor. Which may not be nice. It may not even be good manners. But it is a core component of liberty.
We either embrace and defend that freedom. Or we’re cowards.
We either defend and uphold each others’ right to be “offensive,” or we deserve to live in shackles.
Simple choice, folks. Simple.