Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je Suis Charlie: What Does That Really Mean?

Nearly two weeks after the Jihadist-driven massacre in Paris that took the lives of seventeen sane, innocent people and a few monsters, the fallout has left me a bit baffled.

"All is Forgiven" ;  "I am Charlie"
It was no surprise, really, that as the staff at Charlie Hebdo rallied to get out its scheduled issue on time - complete with the usual satirical cartoons - the likes of The New York Times and MSNBC refused to show the cover during coverage of the story, explaining that they didn't want to offend Muslims (translate: hurt anyone's feelings). CNN was even more disingenuous about it: they announced they wouldn't show it without reason, for about two days, then said they wanted to protect their journalists from Muslim attack. Baloney - have they not covered other controversial subjects with no such worries? And after all - what sort of "news organization" are you if you do not take risks? At least one on-air anchor openly stated disagreement with the decision.

Funny thing is . . . no one seems to understand what the cover cartoon was about. I read and understand French well, and it left me scratching my head. I had to laugh when news anchors asked French citizens what they thought it meant, and got everything from nervous chuckles to various lengthy theories.  (In the end, I think the meaning was super-satirical: a crying Mohammad as a joke that Muslims would never feel remorse for the violence they inflict on the West in the name of Islam.)

What is astounding to me, though, as a writer and sometime journalist, is that none of these entities seemed to appreciate what I was taught in Journalism 101: that free expression is sacred, and that it must remain so. Sure . . . they give it lip-service as they link arms and walk a few blocks in a parade/photo op, but how many national leaders, and sadly how many news network editors, really get it?  I had to realize that many really don't.

Back thirty-odd years ago when I was a student in the journalism department of a large university, I was assigned a major paper for a writing class. The idea was to learn to write a well-researched 50-pager. I chose to write on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He was a Russian writer and social critic. Born in 1918, just as the Russian communist revolution was at an end, he grew up in a world where he was forbidden to write much of what was racing around in his head. But Solzhenitsyn bucked the system and did it anyway. As a result, he spent some time in a Siberian prison camp (he got a good book out of it), and eventually escaped the U.S.S.R. and fled into Western Europe, and after some time, the U.S.  I was twenty-something, and it fascinated me that someone could be punished so brutally for simply voicing an opinion. It fascinated me, and he fascinated me. 

I also was fascinated with the few voices in Nazi Germany who spoke out against the popular regime. Let's not forget that Hitler's rise to power took over a decade . . . during which your average German citizen either was too busy living life to care much about the cancerous elephant in the room, or simply couldn't wrap their brains around the ugly truth of Hitler's aims. So they told themselves it wasn't all that bad, turned their eyes away, and their backs, and well . . . we know how that  turned out.  Those who spoke up, who refused to be silenced against mass opinion, generally ended up dead. But quite a few managed to mess things up for the Nazis a bit before they did.  I understood quite early in my life that these were the lives that mattered in this world - these were the souls that were strongest.  Each time one died, they managed to light a small candle first in a world of darkness - in the form of open speech.  Forbidden speech. 

In early 2012, a teen-aged girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was hired to write a blog for the BBC, detailing her life under Taliban occupation.  She talked about their gradual occupation of the valley where she lived, how life became more restrictive and the Taliban patrols more feared. Most of all she talked about how things were changing for women, for girls trying to get an education. Malala loved learning and appreciated deeply the opportunities she had to go to school daily. She was punished for her courage in speaking out, in October of that year, when the Taliban stopped her school bus, boarded and asked for her by name, and shot the 15-year-old girl in the head. All for speaking out about her beliefs. After a long recovery, she continued to speak, even being one of few women to address the U.N General Assembly to speak on the rights of women to education.

There are hundreds of these stories through the time of our history as a thinking, writing, drawing,
photographing, painting, singing  race.  The people in our history who have introduced new ideas, who have spurred the rest of us to think, who have sparked the energy of change for the better, were all such people.  Change is rarely ever welcomed - it is human nature to push back against it; without these brave people to express ideas we have never heard before, ideas that demand thought and social progress, we would stagnate. 

Many of us watched the world leaders (minus our own spineless one) join the millions-strong march in Paris to support Charlie Hebdo and by extension freedom of expression. I had to believe that for many it was a photo op (witness the Saudi leader, having the gall to stand in support of freedom of expression even as his country carries out a sentence of 20 public canings against journalist Raif Badawi for daring to "insult" Islam in his work; or Putin - the thug whose regime murders journalists who get too mouthy). Others likely stood against Islamic extremism without making the connection in their brains that the two issues - Islamic extremism and free expression - were inseparable on that day.

I wonder how many in the crowd really understood it either.  France has a long proud history of fighting for freedom for the individual, and a long history of producing great artists and writers that introduced controversial ideas, and I have to say I'm not surprised that this social explosion occurred in France, of any of the western European countries. But, France has failed to protect free expression to the extent that it should have: it folded to the politically correct left and put in place "hate speech laws".  In the past decade, even Canada - that bastion of liberty - has made the same mistake.  The situation there is such  that an ex-Muslim, having fled the radical religion in his own country, cannot openly speak about his experience in Canada without some whiny leftist having him arrested for "hate speech". 

One day several months back, some worthless piece of dung posted an anti-gay rant on Twitter.  It was picked up by some in the gay crowd, who ranted back that he needed to be "banned from Twitter" for "hate speech".  I made the mistake of pointing out that, in my view, that would be wrong.  Several people threw back at me that what he said was "illegal" and "against the law".  I walked away from it - how to begin to reason with people in that frame of mind?  But he broke no law - he was expressing a free, legal, albeit vile, opinion.  People didn't seem to understand that in the U.S., where Twitter is based, it is not in fact illegal, and that in cyberspace there is no such regulation. 

But for me it was more than  that: this was an example of why free expression matters so very much. 
Let me say here that I understand well, as a journalist, that there are limits to free speech even in
Malala Yousefzai won the Nobel Peace prize at 17, in 2014.
the U.S., which arguably has the most free of speech regulation laws in the world.  You may have heard the joke that you can't yell Fire! in a crowded theatre, unless of course there is an actual fire.  You can't incite a public riot - posing imminent harm to people in a crowd (people in Ferguson, take note). Generally our speech laws reflect caps on speech which would cause immediate physical harm to people.  What we will not put caps on is more telling of American society:  we allow open criticism of government (people in New York, be grateful) in either public discourse or written form; we allow pretty much anything to be said in a novel including criticism and distortion of religions (Dan Brown);  we allow the burning of our own flag; we allow criticism of political ideas in the form of satire - comedy skits (you think SNL would fly in Saudi Arabia?), newspaper columns, and yes, cartoons.  We argue constantly about what to allow on prime-time TV and in feature films. These expressions of creation - good and bad, inspiring or debasing - spur discussion, they invite new ideas, new ways of viewing the world around us.  In this way they stretch our collective creativity and imagination. 

But what about the idiot on Twitter with the anti-gay slurs? What about those of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons that many deem distasteful?  What about the fact that SNL's skits are leftist-slanted?  What about when Solzhenitsyn, from behind the electrified fences of his U.S. home, ranted about the evils of the U.S. in much the way he ranted about the U.S.S.R. (the man was perpetually dissatisfied and angry, it turns out, genius though he probably was . . . )?  Do we have to tolerate speech that is . . . well, worthless?  Destructive?  

I would argue that we do. I would argue that we make a grave mistake when we fail to protect the vilest of speech and this is why:

1 - I truly believe in sunlight as the great disinfectant. Consider the person on Twitter - I suspect it was a 13-year-old trying to get a rise out of a bunch of gay porn stars and pro-gay activists, but let's say for argument's sake it was a 45-year-old business executive and respected member of his town.  I think it's good for us all to see what that man says, see it plainly for what it is, know the disease in our midst and then destroy it with education. If we are never permitted to hear it, after all, we never have to really look hard at its existence.   And. . . when it's out in the open, the person who spoke has to face consequences, has to defend an indefensible stance. That can only be a great exercise. 

2 - Secondly, we cannot with good conscience say that we are a free society that respects varied points of view, and then silence some points of view.  It's hypocritical, and furthermore it is damned dangerous: the more tyrannical regimes in the history of the world did this - a few people decided what everyone should believe and God help those who spoke up with a differing opinion. When we silence any point of view, we imply that only some of us have the right to silence others. This is pompous, arrogant, and invites totalitarian ways of thinking.  If we are a truly equal society, then we don't silence views we don't agree with. 

3 - Silencing unpopular views destroys the possibility for one of those views to change the world for the better.  Does any of us really want to live in a society where everyone agrees?  How boring!  How impossibly bland!  How would we create anything meaningful in such a place?  How would any innovation be born?  As I have already asserted, necessary changes for the better often begin with the spark of an offensive idea - or an offensive political cartoon.

4 - The cool crowd is fickle and their preferences change regularly with the wind. Today, it's not cool to speak against Islam; however it's fine to bash Christianity. Tomorrow.. who knows?  Two decades ago it was risky to defend gay marriage out loud . . . today it's nearly chic. Do you want to gamble that tomorrow the cool crowd agrees with you 100 per cent - because if you allow the cool crowd to always determine what is acceptable expression, and you value being truthful more than being one of the crowd, you may find yourself muted. Defend those who aren't cool today so that tomorrow your voice is safe. Simple.

Some argue that we go too far if we insult one's very religion. Imagine . . . if we outlawed religious critique and discourse, how shallow our philosophical world would become.  The Pope - bless him - got it wrong. His predecessors had the moral courage in the Stalin era to speak out against what they saw as an evil ideology; they did it again in the Nazi era. He might do well to review history. As for pulling our punches when discussing religion and politics, so as not to offend the faint of heart, I am with Bill Maher - whom I generally dismiss as a brainless  twit mind you, but lately have become a bit fond of (I hardly recognize the old guy nowadays . . .) 

A few wise people have pointed out since the Paris march that "free speech" is not made for those whose views are acceptable, but for those whose views are repugnant. This is why Evelyn Beatrice Hall's quote lives on through the decades (no, it was not Voltaire!): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."   I was deeply offended by the rant on Twitter against so many of the people I love in the GLBT community, but I do not want to see that account banned for the same reason I don't want the vilest of rhetoric from Jihadists using Twitter to recruit banned - I want it right out in the open to be seen for the filth it is, and I want us all to have to consider it in its existence, and form our own moral code accordingly. I value an individual's right to free expression only secondly to human life. 

A wise reader of the New York Times wrote a poignant note to the editor in the days after the newspaper's decision not to run the controversial cover. In it, Gael Mooney of New York wrote:

"If freedom of speech applies only to speech deemed inoffensive to anyone, including extremists, then the terrorists have, sadly, achieved their objective."

Indeed, as Gael pointed out, by doing exactly what the terrorists want the West to do, the Times, CNN, MSNBC and other cowards of the media, moved us all a little closer to the objective of extremists - to force us all to silence.

As Bill Maher so simply and succinctly puts it: "Opinions shouldn't be illegal."  Think about it. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical paper by its own definition. It has insulted every religion, many individuals, and frankly I see much better anti-extremist-Islam cartoons. I agree that most of the time, the cartoonists at CB were and are simply jerks when it comes to their work.  But I would hate to live in a world where their right to draw and publish them, and my right to see them, is denied.  Because I cringe to think about the arrogance of those who would dare to decree for the rest of us, what information is fit for us to see and hear.

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