Sometime in the Paleolithic past, one guy said to his friends, “Hey, have you ever noticed how small Steve the Chief’s brow is? Look at me, I’m Steve No-Brow.” Everyone laughed, then Steve the Chief caved the guy’s head in with a rock. Human affairs with regards to unauthorized satire remained the same for the next 100,000 years or so, with the only difference being who was holding the biggest rock.
Wednesday’s terrorist attack on the office of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo is a grim reminder that the last couple hundred years of increased tolerance for unfettered speech is largely an anomaly. Viewed over the course of history, freedom of speech as an ideal can only be seen as a bizarre fetish, propagated by a few lone cranks and out of step with humanity’s preference for order, deference to raw power, and violence as a means of achieving those preferences.
I say this because, over at Vox, Ezra Klein has an article on the Charlie Hebdo attack that is wildly divorced from both current and past history. Klein writes that the murder of Charlie Hebdo’s employees “can’t be explained by a close read of an editorial product, and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds.”
“They can only be explained,” Klein continues, “by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn’t need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.”
Basically Everything Ezra Klein Said Is Wrong
As to the first point, it’s hard to see how the murders couldn’t be explained by looking at Charlie Hebdo’s brazen, blasphemous content. Does Klein think Charlie Hebdo would have been targeted if it produced French pastries, instead of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed? It strains credulity, even in Vox-world, to say yes. Would Klein consider the firebombing of a magazine office—which happened to Charlie Hebdo in 2011—anything other than an attack on free speech if it occurred at another publication? One would at least hope so.
Second, a brief glance at the twentieth century should be enough to dispel the notion that the attackers were anything but cold, calculating humans. The perpetrators did something that humans, especially under the auspices of government, have done for 99 percent of recorded history: shut up people they didn’t like. We’ve graduated from heavy rocks, but not as much as some of us would like to imagine.
We tend to think of the value of free speech as a settled argument, but nothing could be farther from the truth—not in the United States and certainly not abroad. Sure, if you asked ten people on the street if they like free speech, you would likely get ten enthusiastic yesses, but you might get a very different reaction if you handed them a newspaper blaspheming their most cherished beliefs—religion, politics, themselves—and asking them if it should be allowed to be printed.
What Charlie Hebdo did to great effect was put that issue in people’s hands and force them to consider where they stood. The editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo knew where they stood. After Charlie Hebdo’s office was firebombed, the magazine put out its most famous edition. The cover showed the cartoonist and a presumably Muslim man embraced in a sloppy kiss, with the headline, “L’amour plus fortque la haine.” Love is stronger than hate. They made a brave, irrational bet.
Self-Censorship Is Cowardice
In the aftermath of the most recent attack on Charlie Hebdo, many publications will trumpet their dedication to free speech while tut-tutting the magazine’s insistence on publishing immature, inflammatory images. Free speech is all well and good, but can’t we please be oh so careful not to offend? For example, here’s the Financial Times:
Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.
This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.
Meanwhile, other news outlets are going out of their way to censor or avoid publishing the images that led to the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
The subtext in all these arguments, acts of self-censorship, and obfuscation of the attack’s root causes, never outright stated, is fear. Fear that hate is stronger than love, fear that after all these thousands of years, we still can’t take a joke. The employees of Charlie Hebdo went to work on Wednesday, like they did every day, hoping to prove history wrong. To say, as Klein does, that their murders are “not a statement, or a controversy,” ignores what they lived and died for.