The counsel, in the moment it is offered, is sound enough. Faced with an opponent who will do anything to prevail in a contest to whose outcome you are indifferent, you should give in. You will lose nothing, as you stood to gain nothing. But what happens when you face an opponent who will do anything to prevail in a contest whose outcome is your life or death?
So I’ve been wondering lately while contemplating the “let the Wookiee win” scene from “Star Wars.” My epiphany (to be exorbitant) about the scene originally occurred in January. Events since then, such as the controversy over the PEN American Center’s award to Charlie Hebdo, the reaction to the terrorist attack on the “Draw Muhammad” event in Texas, and the DC transit system’s recent decision to suspend issue-advocacy ads for the remainder of 2015 so it would not have to run any featuring the winning “Draw Muhammad” illustration, have convinced me that my initial insight was correct.
That insight, simply, is this. On various grounds—fear, a belief that public safety requires it, a conviction that the targets in both attacks were engaged in “hate speech,” a desire not to offend coupled with a misguided sense of respect, whatever—critics of what we might call Islamoclasm advocate that we adopt a “let the Wookiee win” strategy towards violent responses to depictions and criticism of Islam. That is, they think our best, even our only, recourse is to surrender. That may be a fine way to handle Chewbacca, but as a strategy for defending basic freedoms it is ignoble and self-defeating. The problem with letting the Wookiee win is that eventually he insists that you lose forever.
Is Self-Censorship Really Freedom?
“I didn’t say they couldn’t, I said you shouldn’t.” An exasperated Marge Simpson utters these words after Homer Simpson boasts of his success in getting his shirt deep-fried at a fair. With no less exasperation but considerably more hostility, some counter attempts to vindicate Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller with a similar formula: “We didn’t say they couldn’t, we said they shouldn’t.” This reproach comes in two flavors. Each pleases some palates, but when tasted by the body politic as a whole both prove bitter.
The first variety of this disapproval was given characteristic expression in April by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, when he proclaimed that satire only “punches up, against authority of all kinds” and that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists erred by instead “punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons.” But it had already been de rigueur among the bien pensant for months, having become so almost immediately after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January.
The moral and intellectual vacuity of the “punching down” argument is best illustrated by this imbecilic screed, which laments the PEN American Center’s decision because commemorating Charlie Hebdo’s boorishness perpetuates the worst injustice in the world: “Western white culture’s misguided understanding of freedom in relation to denigrating minority cultures.” Only someone who willfully served a long sentence in those university departments whose commitment to basic canons of reasoning, evidence, and argumentation is generously described as modest could write something that leads one to conclude her mind is still imprisoned there.
David Frum, Ross Douthat, and Jordan Fraade, among others, have pointed to inconsistencies and contradictions that render the “punching down” thesis, at least when applied to Charlie Hebdo, fatuous and incoherent. For one thing, there seems to be little privilege in spending one’s life in hiding because someone thought you were “punching down” when you were simply moving your hand. For another, the fact that Islam claims some 1.5 billion worshippers ineluctably leads one to inquire just how powerless are its adherents, really.
Privileging the Favored
The irony of the Argument from Pugilism, as we might call it, is that it exchanges one privilege for another. A privilege is a private law; by definition it belongs to a few and not to all. Privilege demarcates a group and sets it apart from society. Critics of satire of Muslims challenge it on the grounds that it reinforces the advantageous social standing of the satirists. The satirists, they charge, pick on a group that is already on the fringes of society.
But there is also a privilege in being exempt from the norms which govern the rest of society. To declare Islam immune from the tumults of the public sphere because fragility or incompatibility renders it incapable of thriving therein is to demand a privilege at least equal to the supposed one that enables the persecution of a defenseless minority.
This privilege has no legal standing. Its proponents seek moral sanction for it. This may be both unnecessary and futile. Why ask for what you can take? As has been demonstrated all too often, some of the powerless and disenfranchised are ready to “punch up”—with fists, knives, guns, and bombs. Any attempt to rescind this privilege is treated as an affront which may be requited with violence. Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t fight at all.
Murder Victims Had It Coming?
“Nobody worries about upsetting a droid.” This conclusion inspires the altogether more sinister variant of disapproval for drawing pictures of Muhammad, the Argument from Provocation, which should be familiar to anyone who closely attended news coverage of the PEN/Charlie Hebdo controversy and the Garland shootings.
It goes something like this: 1) Some Muslims will react violently to images of Muhammad, which they consider blasphemous. 2) Knowledge of the prohibition and its violent enforcement being widespread among non-Muslims, any activity in which such images are created invites violence. 3) Having possessed this knowledge yet persisted anyway, both Charlie Hebdo’s writers and the organizers of the Texas event were culpable, to whatever degree one cares to assign, for the violence directed against them. All of which is a more polite, circumspect way of saying something nasty: they had it coming.
Reduced to its essence, one can understand the responses this has aroused in those who espy in it an attempt, whether intentional or not, to apportion blame to those who can have no share in it. It is not, though, entirely meretricious. Thomas McDonald articulates the most defensible, and not coincidentally the most modest, version of the provocation thesis. Gratuitous instigation like Geller’s, he contends, picks unnecessarily at those compromises that bind a pluralistic society together. Rubbing someone’s nose in your scorn is not just rude, it is uncivil. You wouldn’t walk up to random Muslims on the street (or Christians, for that matter) and call them heathens or idolaters. Masking your contempt in the cloak of freedom of speech doesn’t disoblige you of basic courtesy.
Such is McDonald’s case, and it is fine as far as it goes. The problem, as he concedes, is that it doesn’t go very far. Geller meant to offend, and offense was taken. But even when there is no intent to offend, some Muslims take offense. And because of their interpretation of Islam’s doctrines, they feel compelled to punish the offense: “idolatry is blasphemy and blasphemy is punished by death.” McDonald acknowledges that “way too many Muslims are willing to murder for their faith,” far more than adherents of other faiths.
Giving the Violent More Excuses
There are no innocent depictions of Muhammad. The concept itself is out of bounds. That is fine for Muslims. But non-Muslims are under no obligation to acquiesce. McDonald is right that one ought not needlessly belittle or be wantonly cruel. But this notion of fair play, when coupled with knowledge of the consequences should one violate it, easily becomes a justification for an exaggerated cautiousness and wariness. It metamorphoses into a conviction that it is better to be safe than sorry, that even if offense isn’t intended one must refrain from saying something lest offense be taken, and those offended react badly.
That is, they may try to kill you because the very act of speaking on the subject is insulting. Not the content or substance of the speech, nor its tenor, but the existence of the words themselves. “[N]obody worries about upsetting a droid.” And quite rightly. But what about all the Wookiees out there?
The dread that “Here be Wookiees” underpins the Argument from Provocation. It is palpable in three of the most egregious responses to the attack on the Geller event, all of which essentially hold her responsible for the assassins’ failed gambit to kill her. One is this article from McClatchy, which Popehat’s Ken White chides as “unusually stupid.” Given that the organizers of the Muhammad art event spent $10,000 on extra security, clearly they anticipated violence. Should, then, authors Lindsay Wise and Jonathan Landay muse, the government have intervened?
After vivisecting the farrago of misinformation and illogic Wise and Landay present (along with their First Amendment “expert,” who apparently doesn’t understand First Amendment case law), White makes a simple observation. Putting the onus on the “provocateurs” effectively “cedes all authority to the offended and provoked.” By letting those who would react violently determine what is offensive, “Wise and Landay are effectively inviting people to be more violent in order to control what speech is permissible.”
The editorial board of the New York Times advances similar claims with its customary rigor. The violence in Texas can’t be justified, but neither can the event that was targeted. Wringing its hands, the Times frets that “provocations like the Garland event . . . can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.” But whose fault is that, those stoking the flames or those who insist on combusting? Why drawing a picture of Muhammad “give[s] extremists more fuel” is a question the Times conspicuously neglects to ask, let alone answer. The fact that Geller succeeded seems to trouble the board’s conscience much less than the fact that she tried.
Capitulation Is the Coward’s Answer
The most execrable specimen of the lot is a column by Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman, who proves once more the wisdom of the adage that there are some ideas so stupid only an Ivy League professor could believe them. That Feldman intends to take a detour off the rails is apparent early when he posits that, when assessing Geller’s conduct, it’s “easy to be distracted by the First Amendment.” Feldman contends that even if Geller did not intend to provoke violence, she “could still be held morally responsible for the foreseeable consequences of her provocation.” In other words, because Geller knew (some) Muslims would react like goons, it is her fault that they did.
Steven Lubet of Northwestern University decries holding Geller culpable on the grounds of moral hazard as vicious and reprehensible. “Blaming her, even partially and conditionally, for an act of terror stretches moral reasoning beyond the breaking point.” If Geller was soliciting violence by having armed guards, so was the staff of Charlie Hebdo.
Nor may we differentiate between the worthiness of victims: Salman Rushdie is not less responsible for the death of his Japanese translator than Geller is for the shots fired in her direction. “The application of moral principles to extremist violence should not depend upon the acceptability of the victim’s views.” This statement seems unobjectionable, but the existence of Lubet’s op-ed attests that many do object. Lubet realizes that the consequences of Feldman’s logic would be disastrous. “In the wake of threats of murder for the exercise of free expression… Feldman claims that the correct moral response is to shut up.” Echoing White, he warns that this “gives the bullies a strong incentive to strike early and often (thus making their threats more credible).”
The Rise of the But-Heads
How should one confront the threat? By shutting up. In other words, let the Wookiee win. Silence is already falling. As Sean Davis described in these pages, CNN refused to reproduce the Charlie Hebdo drawings after the massacre and bent over backwards to respect Muslim sensitivities even in describing them verbally. Not only would the TV network not show images, it wanted its employees not to picture them in their minds.
The virus became airborne and took on epidemic proportions in late April. This explains the proliferation of those curious, unfortunate creatures—I call them “but-heads”—who rasp, “I believe in free speech, but…” We can recognize them from excessive throat-clearing, which sounds suspiciously like gagging, when they are faced with the unpleasant task of defending the free speech of those who inconveniently were killed for it.
“But but but,” they object, mostly to speech that has the temerity to butt heads, or at least the wrong heads. “We support your free speech,” they protest, “but do you really have to be so gauche about it?” Won’t somebody please think of the writers (on the Upper East Side)?!
PEN did think of the writers. But there’s no pleasing some people—or, rather, there’s no absolution in blood for the sin of punching down. Hence the decision of 200 writers to secede from PEN’s choice to honor Charlie Hebdo for its bravery in the face of intimidation and murder. This moral abdication has been rightly greeted as scrawling once more on the graves of the dead the calumnies which first decorated them as soon as they were dug.
Not that the shame is a few-score literati’s alone. The week following the Texas attack found numerous cable news personalities succumbing to the “but-head” virus, swearing allegiance to free speech out of one side of their mouth while tut-tutting “hate speech” and “provocation” out of the other. The aftermath of the Paris massacre presented the sorry spectacle of the outgoing ombudsman for NPR stating that while it is fine “to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world,” mocking “prophets and gods” is a step too far.
The former occupant of the “James Madison Visiting Professor Chair on First Amendment Issues at Columbia University” also wonders whether courts would find Charlie Hebdo to be “hate speech,” a category with no basis in American jurisprudence. Because, in case anyone had forgotten (and much to the regret of the “but-heads,” one imagines), there is no such thing as “hate speech” in American law.
The Double Standard for Muslims
What law does not grant can still be enforced by custom and social practice. That seems to be the outcome those who wield the Argument from Provocation desire. It may be legal to draw cartoons of Muhammad, but it should not be socially acceptable. Feldman gives the game away. “One goal of the provokers in Texas,” he complains, “seems to have been sending a message to Muslims that their faith may be criticized with impunity.”
As though it is wrong to be able to criticize something with impunity. That’s rather the point. The contrary principle is inimical to those on which American society rests. It is the principle which whispers, from under a table or inside a closet, “let the Wookiee win.” “They made a wasteland and called it peace.”
What else does Feldman think ought not to be criticized with impunity? As numerous commentators have observed, the prohibitions against mocking religion disappear in front of a cross. Devout Christians find scurrilous depictions of their icons and beliefs no less offensive than Muslims, yet objections to them are dismissed as irrelevant violations of America’s social consensus. Why? Because Christians have not massacred anyone lately for dropping crucifixes in urine and calling it art.
You’re Making the Left Look Bad, Guys
The Argument from Provocation rests on a double standard, one which reinforces the privilege I mentioned earlier, the privilege that exempts one religion from the scrutiny to which another is not only allowed to be subjected, but to which it is expected to be subjected. No honest person can fail to see the profound hypocrisy here. Many have, but the blogger Ace of Spades’ lapidary expression of it deserves to be reproduced here.
What those who ostracize the Islamoclasts seem to find most objectionable is not the content of their speech or that someone might try to kill them, it’s having their pieties bruised. As though what they resent is not that their ideological foes are being attacked, but that they are being vindicated. The aggrieved tone complains, “Stop proving yourselves right and making us look bad!” Peering down their noses they pose a question a bully might ask his victim as he takes his victim’s hand and slaps him with it: “Why do you keep hitting yourself?”
All exhortations not to give offense, not to publish, and so forth, are rationalizations built on a brutal and simple moral calculus: Don’t do this, because if you do you are inviting someone to kill you. The sense of invitation, of solicitation is critical. If you draw or publish cartoons about Muhammad, Muslims may react violently. If Muslims react violently, you may be killed. Therefore, if you draw or publish cartoons about Muhammad, you may be killed. You are, in effect, signing your own death warrant. So it’s your own damn fault if you get your brains blown out. After all, you were asking for it. And even if you weren’t, if that Charlie Hebdo kid jumped off a bridge, you wouldn’t jump too, would you?
Sometimes a leap of faith is what is needed. Maybe especially when what is provocative is merely the possibility of provocation. The suggestion that the attack in Texas “is part of a viciously circular infinite regression, in which hatred is proposed at every turn and each new violence provokes a counter-violence” is nonsensical. Only one side is violent: the side with guns and bombs. The solution to violence is supposedly to lay down arms and swear a truce. But when one side’s arms drip with ink and the other’s drip with blood there is no peace to be had. “We will stop drawing cartoons” and “we will stop killing you” are incommensurate concessions.
Eternity Can Defend Itself
Those who think they are equal, that the pen is mightier than the sword because the sword only wounds the body while the pen wounds something greater because intangible—the soul of society or some ineffable value like justice or safety or dignity—will always implore us to let the Wookiee win because they take the enemy at his word. But safety of this kind is not really safety because its maintenance is not in our hands but theirs. Not to mention that “[t]here are only about a million things in life better than being safe, however important safety is. If safety is your highest value, you’ll do anything to keep it.” Salus populi suprema lex esto is what is carved above the gate to the road to perdition.
We do not normally think of the right to blaspheme as one of our basic rights. We take it for granted now because it has been absorbed into Western society. No one has exercised it because there has been no reason to. It would be considered absurd to punish someone for rejecting the Trinity or Christ’s divinity. Yet a distressingly robust number of people excuse the compulsion to discipline by force those who profane Islam. In some countries this discipline comes at the hands of the state in the form of laws against blasphemy or “hate speech.” Punishing blasphemy, however, can never be a proper function of the state. Montesquieu explained why 260 years ago.
The mischief arises from a notion which some people have entertained of revenging the cause of the Deity. But we must honour the Deity and leave him to avenge his own cause. Indeed, were we to be directed by such a notion, where would be the end of punishments? If human laws are to avenge the cause of an infinite Being, they will be directed by his infinity, and not by the weakness, ignorance, and caprice of man.
The right to blaspheme is not a duty to blaspheme. We are under no obligation to desecrate the Host or draw pictures of Muhammad. But we are no more obliged to allow those who find either action blasphemous to forbid them or dictate our response to them. Choice is intrinsic to the concept of an “individual right.” We may choose to exercise a right or we may refrain from doing so. But this choice must be made freely and without duress or coercion.
Unless these conditions are met, one cannot speak of an individual right, for the choice is being made for one, not by one. I may carry a gun, or I may not. I may testify on my own behalf, or I may not. I may write this essay, or I may not. But none of these choices may be compelled. A person with tape over his mouth is not remaining silent, he is being kept silent. There is no right if it may be exercised in only one direction.
The Cone of Silence Covers More than Islam
It is not only with respect to Islam that the condition of silence has found increasing favor in America these days. Threats to the ability to think and write freely are legion. One of the most salient in recent months has been the penchant of college students to demand “safe spaces” cleansed of speakers and ideas they reprove. The “safe spacers” do not use guns, but they are no less pledged to the idea that certain speech inherently affronts their dignity and must be driven from their presence.
They are animated by an impulse Mill repudiated a century and a half ago.
A theory of ‘social rights,’ the like of which probably never before found its way into distinct language – being nothing short of this – that it is the absolute social right of every individual, that every other individual shall act in every respect exactly as he ought; that whosoever fails thereof in the smallest particular, violates my social right, and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance. So monstrous a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty; there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever, except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret, without ever disclosing them; for the moment an opinion which I consider noxious, passes any one’s lips, it invades all the ‘social rights’ attributed to me by the Alliance. The doctrine ascribes to all mankind a vested interest in each other’s moral, intellectual, and even physical perfection, to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard.
The cause of social right, like God’s, is infinite; so must punishments of it be, for transgressions, too, are infinite, there being no place in which one can shelter from it. This is less a safe space than an abyss into which one ceaselessly plunges. The space may be safe, but only because it has been sterilized. Nothing dangerous will grow in it, because nothing will grow in it. Tacitus’ words come to mind: “They made a wasteland and called it peace.”
“That whereof one may not speak, thereof one must remain silent,” noted Ludwig Wittgenstein. Morally and intellectually, a wasteland is exactly what a society would be in which certain topics became verboten. There is nothing, as Mill foresaw, that someone will not want to silence someone else about. A tongue for a tongue leaves everyone mute. To remain silent, on occasion one must speak. For example, in the face of those who would still one’s voice forever.
“That whereof one may not speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Silence, a prominent and growing segment of our intellectual cadres has determined, is the proper mode of discussing certain subjects in public. Public authorities have begun to embrace this attitude, also. Hence officials of Washington’s Metro system decided they had to ban all issue ads from their buses, trains, and stations to prevent one ad from appearing there. Silence about one subject, in other words, entails silence about them all.
The End of an Open Society
However it was ordered before, a society in which Wittgenstein’s dictum took hold would be neither liberal nor open. What those who would make propriety a criterion, even the sole criterion, for determining whether something should be discussed in public fail to realize is that Wittgenstein’s dictum is readily transmuted into Tacitus’.
For most of human history, religion was regarded as far above man’s understanding. Only in the last few centuries has it become permissible in a few corners of the globe to contemplate the divine without fear of immolating one’s body or soul.
If we are to pay a proper respect to the opinions of mankind, as the postulants of the Arguments from Pugilism and Provocation insist, we may remind them that one of those opinions holds that no one should be slaughtered for drawing a cartoon. That is why those who spurn artists who drew Muhammad for punching down have it exactly backwards. The artists were not punching down, they were punching up—to the very heavens. For what is higher indeed than “prophets and gods”?
Shortly before C-3PO urges R2-D2 to change tack, Obi-Wan experiences the disturbance in the Force caused by the annihilation of Alderaan. He tells Luke it felt “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” We are mercifully short of millions, but here too something terrible has happened and voices have cried out in terror and been suddenly silenced. A far greater disturbance in the Force would await us were we ever to decide to let the Wookiee win.
 Astute readers will perceive a resemblance between my victorious Wookiee and Kipling’s Dane. To the best of my knowledge, however, I had not heard of Kipling’s poem until Eugene Volokh cited it in his column on WMATA’s decision to cancel issue ads for the remainder of the year.