Thursday, January 15, 2015

It IS Like Rain on Your Wedding Day

We don't really mean it
At its very essence, the entire Charlie Hebdo narrative stands at the nexus of Religion and Democracy. Theocracies are inherently and structurally undemocratic, so it stands to reason they would have laws against insulting or mocking religion - at least the religion preferred by the theocrats - and these kinds of laws are widely viewed as being violations of human rights. In western democracies, however, the juxtaposition is muddier, with speech both protected and criminalized on various bases.

Which brings us back to France. Days after holding a gigantic rally for freedom, a rally attended by political leaders from all over the globe, France proceeded to launch a major crackdown on people who commit the crime of "hate speech" or "supporting terrorism". That's right. As the nation defiantly defends the right to insult Muslims by violating their religious taboos, more than fifty people have been arrested for insulting Jews or speaking out in support of the murders. Both are ugly, foul expressions, but it must be recognized that Muslims found the Charlie Hebdo cartoons ugly and foul. That these are hypocritical events that cannot be justified under any coherent legal or constitutional construct is undeniable, but they point to a larger underlying problem - the tolerance for the protection of offensive speech in liberal democracies is variable, depending less on the content of the speech and almost exclusively on who would be offended.

None of this is about people who claim to defend free speech rights but blame the cartoonists for their own murders by printing images of the Prophet even after they had been warned that there might be a violent response. There is a special corner of hell reserved for people who are opposed to government censorship but are willing to allow anyone to censor their speech using violent coercion. But rather if you are willing to support a legal and constitutional framework that would tolerate some speech that one group finds offensive, under that framework you should be willing to tolerate any speech that any group will find offensive. It's impossible to try to thread that needle selectively - you come up looking as bad as a government that prosecutes people for 'sorcery'.

Look - I get it. Liberal democratic values require a certain courage from both the government and the population. Whether it's constitutional provisions curtailing surveillance, search and seizure or censorship, it's understood that you're taking on additional risk in order to live your professed values. That was for many years a basis of the pride people took in their western democratic traditions - we collectively believed that it was worth any potential cost to live up to the standards we set for ourselves. And make no mistake - a hundred million "Je Suis Charlies" later, the French are nowhere near living the values they claimed in that street demonstration last weekend.



  1. Not to mention Bibi Netanyahu killed 17 journalists and 500 children in Gaza, just in his latest military rampage.

    I don't recall the march of western leaders for freedom?

  2. And make no mistake - a hundred million "Je Suis Charlies" later, the French are nowhere near living the values they claimed in that street demonstration last weekend.

    That's OK, neither are we.