Never has the costless but self-affirming political gesture been easier or more prevalent than now, when a hashtag or an avatar passes for principled stand. But the principles on which free societies are based cannot, in the long run, be defended without taking on risk.
There is, to be sure, something charming about spontaneous online movements such as “Je suis Charlie.” Although there are legitimate concerns about the particular brand of speech Charlie Hebdo specializes in, on the whole public support for the magazine and its staff has been salutary—and better than the victim-blaming alternative. It is exactly this type of popular display that nurtures a culture of free expression.
Here I want to draw a distinction between a culture of free expression and simple free speech. The latter is a legal question that depends exclusively on having and enforcing a robust free-speech legal regime. This concept is not directly at issue in the Charlie Hebdo incident, nor in this essay. Although we can quibble, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe have strong free-speech legal regimes.
Our Anemic Culture of Free Expression
A culture of free expression depends on a proper legal regime, but it also requires a people who value and actively support diverse and challenging expression, both in form and in content. A society where many fear exercising their legal rights due to the threat of social reprisal may have free speech, but not a culture of free expression. Sometimes, especially where constitutional schemes are different or weaker than in the United States, an anemic culture of free expression can corrode legal free speech.
Any enthusiasm we might have about America’s culture of free expression in the wake of Charlie Hebdo should be tempered by the relative silence of the free-speech brigade about controversies where speaking out carries real risk. Tweeting a hashtag in support of murdered cartoonists is costless. Almost everyone agrees the killing was wrong, and there’s no way the Islamists are going to track down Mr. #JeSuisCharlie from Paducah, Kentucky. You can cancel your ADT Security subscription.
But what about when standing up for a culture of free expression carries the risk of a loss of social or professional standing? What about when the fire chief of Atlanta, Georgia, was fired for expressing boilerplate Christian disapproval of homosexual acts in a book he published? What about when Brendan Eich was forced out at Mozilla for donating to Proposition 8? What about when Bret Baier and Gary Sinise were harangued for agreeing to appear at a run-of-the-mill Catholic gala until they canceled?
Sure, there has been support for Chief Kelvin Cochran, but in almost all cases from predictable sources—those who agree with the opinions that got him fired. It was largely the same for Eich (with a few notable exceptions), and for the Catholic group, Legatus. But if only people who agreed with the content of Charlie Hebdo’s satire showed up online or in the streets of Paris, it would’ve been a lonely adventure. A culture of free expression requires that people who disagree with controversial speech be willing to pin their personal brand to their opponents’. That is something very few will do if there’s a risk that it will tarnish their brand.
‘Homophobia’ Is the American Blasphemy
Let’s be clear here: I’m not saying that LGBT activism is worse that Islamic terrorism. I am saying that to support a robust right to speech perceived to be offensive to LGBT people carries greater risk for the average American than to support a robust right to speech perceived to be offensive to Muslims—or really any religious group.
When a people is as risk-averse in political posturing as we are, the movement most willing to exact a personal price for opposition will win. This explains the American elite’s newfound passion for LGBT rights. The movement carefully worked to make it socially embarrassing to hold traditional views of sexual morality. For example, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has created an Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but for public commentators. The point is to shame and marginalize their opponents. It’s smart, cynical, and effective.
If there’s one thing an elite hates, it’s embarrassment. (The second thing an elite hates is risk.) With the support of this elite, “homophobia” is becoming just as much a blasphemy as real blasphemy has ever been in this country.
Now, every society has its blasphemies—speech that, even if legal, is not tolerated socially. A man can use racial slurs in banter with co-workers and not get thrown in jail, but he shouldn’t expect to have many friends (or a job) for long. The growing social intolerance of LGBT slurs is also salutary. A healthy culture of free expression will have a limited number of blasphemies that function to maintain access to that culture for all.
A Cowardly Culture Sets Speech Bandits Free
The question is what those blasphemies will be—and who gets to decide. This requires a free people to be vigilant, intelligent, and courageous, because it is always in the interest of the powerful (and especially the ascendant) to smuggle new blasphemies into our culture. This brings us back to the rise of the costless gesture.
An unwillingness to take on risk to defend free speech delivers our culture into the hands of the powerful and the unscrupulous. If we all sit back and let Cochran and Eich be punished professionally and socially for publicly opposing the tenets of an ascendant movement, we will have permitted that movement to codify a new blasphemy not through persuasion, but through extortion. We will have indicated that, once a group is powerful and clever enough to be able to make opposition risky, we will not resist even corrosion of the culture of free expression. This is not how a free people remains free.
I’m not a huge fan of the language Cochran used in his book to describe homosexuality. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Christians in particular should approach this issue with grace, charity, and understanding even beyond what we think is necessary. In the face of a movement that wants to mark orthodox Christian teachings blasphemous, we must not speak carelessly lest we confirm the stereotype that is calcifying around us.
At the same time, Cochran’s is exactly the type of marginal speech, like much of Charlie Hebdo’s, that needs to be defended to prevent those margins from tightening. This narrowing is exactly what will happen unless we are willing to take a little risk—potentially tarnishing our personal brand by associating with embarrassing people—in defense of a strong culture of free expression.