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Charlie Hebdo: When Freedom of Speech Isn’t Paramount

The concept of a civil society depends on far more than simply unrestrained freedom of speech.

Before people start leaping to the ramparts, shouting "Freedom of speech is paramount" or "Devotion must prevail," let's start with some very general statements about societies and work toward the specifics to see if we can gain a clearer picture. (Photo: Valentina Calà)

The concept of a civil society depends on far more than simply unrestrained freedom of speech.

Now that Dominic Strauss-Kahn’s sordid adventures have replaced the attack on Charlie Hebdo in the headlines; now that the millions of supporters of freedom of speech have gone home, including such liberals as the King of Jordan, the Turkish president and the prime minister of Israel, it is perhaps time to examine the broader social context of this tragic event.

I appreciate that many people feel the headlines said it all, that brutality does not require analysis, and that more war, more police and fewer civil rights will prevent any further attacks. However, I believe that would miss some critically important points.

Before people start leaping to the ramparts, shouting “Freedom of speech is paramount” or “Devotion must prevail,” let’s start with some very general statements about societies and work toward the specifics to see if we can gain a clearer picture. This way, any flaws in the case will be obvious.

1. We are social animals living in an increasingly crowded world in which the limited necessities of life are inequitably distributed. An ordered society depends on all citizens adhering to certain standard rules. Without such basic agreement, human society cannot exist.

2. It used to be that a society’s fundamental rules were directed at stability, even at the cost of condemning the majority of its members to miserable lives, but now we want broader, more liberal sets of rules so that people gain some degree of fulfillment from their lives.

3. The only authority for these rules is human; they come from, are justified by and enforced by humans. All rules are matters of opinion, not of fact. As long as there are humans with opinions, there will be humans with differences of opinions. Claims such as “Freedom of speech trumps all” or “Religion is beyond criticism” are just opinions. Arguing over matters of opinion is pointless: There’s no accounting for taste.

4. To avoid constant dispute, it is necessary for human groups to agree upon methods of settling differences of opinion. I accept there are people like Adolf Hitler and Dick Cheney who believe there is room for only one set of opinions, theirs, and they have the weapons to prove it. Nonetheless, the great majority of people do not accept that we can build a civil society on the notion of Macht hat Recht, that might is right.

5. Humans have a strong, innate sense of fairness. This competes (often unsuccessfully) with other innate drives, such as territorialism, the urge to form dominance hierarchies, the thrill of aggression, the pleasure of sex, etc. Rationally balancing these drives sometimes requires diligent and self-denying effort. As Edgar Doctorow said: “After all, why compose fiction when you could be devoting your life to your appetites? Why wrestle with a book when you could be amassing a fortune? Why write when you could be shooting someone?”

6. All societies depend on their members accepting restraints on their behavior. If we wish to live meaningfully in a group, we can’t always do what we like. We agree to limit our behavior even though there is constant debate over where those limits should be drawn. To at least some extent, rules must be defined and then obeyed, otherwise society will collapse: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” (Lord Acton).

7. As a matter of psychology, humans have beliefs, some of which serve to define their self-perception. These are known as core beliefs; empirically, assailing a person’s core beliefs results in intense distress. Prolonged intense distress is unendurable, but people react to it in different ways. Some cry; some drink; some run away; some abandon their beliefs and identify with the aggressor and some retaliate. The concept of a civil society says that submitting people to intense distress for no particular reason is unacceptable.

8. Most people take their religion very seriously because religious beliefs lie close to core of the individual’s self-perception. Part of the concept of taking an idea seriously is reacting negatively when those ideas are repeatedly assailed, especially for no good reason. Most people agree that taking one’s religion seriously is virtuous. Most believers want nonbelievers to treat their beliefs with a degree of respect.

9. Many people also agree that, as a matter of fairness, affording your neighbor’s religious beliefs and practices a degree of respect is part of the concept of living in an ordered society that offers individuals the best chance of self-actualization.

10. Part of the concept of an enlightened rule-governed, ordered society is the notion that the powerful should not regard the weak simply as a resource to be abused or plundered. Responsible citizens understand the notion that repeatedly assailing your neighbor’s core beliefs for no good purpose is likely to destabilize the society in a manner which will not benefit individuals or the larger society. The victims of such attacks are those least able to protect themselves; the strong always protect their own core beliefs.

11. The strong may despise the weak (consider Mitt Romney’s “47 percent“), but the concept of a stable society requires that the core beliefs of the weak be afforded something approaching respect. It is a two-way process because that’s what society means: We all agree to abide by a common set of rules. If the strong continue to assail the weak, then there will come a point at which the weak react; the society will be overturned and many will suffer.

12. Pure self-interest aside, it is virtuous for the strong to avoid assailing the religious and other core beliefs of the weak. By virtuous, I mean that because of the asymmetry of power in their relationship, there are certain things that the strong ought to do, and others they ought not to do. For example, if I find a lost kitten, I ought to care for it while I make arrangements for its welfare. I ought not to dip it in petrol then set fire to it for a laugh, just because that is bad. If, however, we have an innate drive to virtue, it is weak; in general, we are better at recognizing lack of virtue directed at ourselves than we are at acting virtuously toward others.

13. There is no truly rational society. Every rule we make involves compromise, conciliation, agreement to disagree, a delicate balancing of one sectoral interest against another – in a word, politics. When balancing opposing opinions, the question will always be: Where do we draw the line? There is no formula to tell us. We have to use common sense and a sense of fair play.

14. The overwhelming Western reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders was that freedom of expression is sacrosanct, that it always overrides opinions such as the right to protect one’s core beliefs. However, that is an extremist position. Freedom of expression always comes with conditions, qualifications, hedges and fudges. We are all familiar with the argument that one is not free to run into a crowded theater and shout “Fire.” Individuals need to be protected; in particular, the weak need to be protected against the strong because that is what the civil in civil society means.

15. Is there a moral case to restrict freedom of political expression? This is an incredibly complex issue involving a delicate balance of individual and social rights and obligations. I believe there is a strong case for a civil society to have laws against slander, calumny and willful offense because without them, the society won’t last. The “cartoons” that provoked so much trouble in France and earlier in Denmark cannot be published in this country, and I don’t believe my life is any the worse for it.

16. After January 7, is it possible to say the editors of Charlie Hebdo were advancing an important social debate, albeit by unconventional means, or were they acting as irresponsibly as the man shouting “Fire”? Were they just immature people making fun of others for selfish reasons and wallowing in the self-generated publicity? Or were their motives more sinister, profiting from using their position of strength to assail disempowered people by attacking their core beliefs, hiding behind the power of the state they affected to despise, all the while knowing there was nothing their targets could do to respond? Was, indeed, Charlie Hebdo just another face of the capitalist monster, determined to smash any and all potential sources of authority that might get in its way of devouring the defenseless?

17. It avails Hebdo’s many defenders naught to say the editors were not part of the power structure. But go to the banlieues and ask the unemployed, under-educated and dispossessed Muslim youths who held the power in their “relationship” with the editors. Ask whether they were ever offered the right of reply. It is a fact of life that educated, socially sophisticated, middle-aged, upper-middle class white males, like myself, have power; we must take responsibility for how we manage that power. The concept of a civil society demands that asymmetrical levels of power be balanced by asymmetrical levels of responsibility.

18. Charlie Hebdo points to the endless moral dilemma of the “reasonable man”: How does a reasonable person deal with unreasonable people without resorting to their methods? The victim of repeated religious abuse is forced either to pretend it didn’t happen, thereby failing his religious and personal duty and having to live with that failure, or to try to do something about it, thereby hoping to retrieve his sense of self-worth. But what can he do? By definition, the social power structures in a hierarchical society are tipped against him: That’s what hierarchy means.

19. It behooves all of us to examine our daily actions in terms of power structures. Educated and sophisticated people should not use their asymmetrical power to attack and humiliate the dispossessed. I do not believe that repeated, carefully directed, violent attacks upon the core beliefs of a dispossessed minority will benefit anybody. It is certainly not virtuous. While I don’t believe the violence of the retaliatory attacks was justified, given the circumstances, it was about as unexpected as tomorrow’s sunrise. And, as I have warned before (here and here), if we keep up the vitriol, there will be more attacks. Extremism breeds extremism.

20. The deceased editorial director of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier, believed with fanatical (extremist religious) intensity in publishing anything and everything he fancied. He had the power to put his belief into practice and the means: When one journal was forced to close, he had the contacts to start another. He had been warned and warned about his provocative behavior, even from the prime minister’s office. Invariably, his response was to publish more and more offensive material, on the basis that he would “rather die on his feet than live on his knees.”

21. His many millions of supporters around the world, apparently including a considerable number of repressive and/or tyrannical governments, should not complain if a couple of orphaned, unemployed Muslim men with few prospects in life felt the same way.

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