I’m rebooting my blog in order to publish thoughts that are outside the specifically Christian forum of thecommonvision.org (and therefore, less considered! I implore you to pick me apart in the comments, dear readers.)
It seems to me that maintaining the free press has always included a defense of offensive content. It also seems to me that a free press is always in need of defense. So I completely disagree with anyone who supposes that free speech is something that has been so firmly established in the West that it is no longer necessary to inspect its foundations and outer limits to detect where the foundations may be cracking.
I look at inflammatory speech like a disclosing tablet. It is not news that controversial speeches or images gets a response, even a violent response, but it’s the response to the response that’s worth paying attention to, because that will tell you something about the health of the first freedom.
The “debate” (if one can call it that) surrounding the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, whether the cartoonists deserved it for their offensiveness or were “asking for it” commits the same fault that I’ve written against before: the presumption that the freedoms enjoy in liberal society are, by now, so firmly established that they need not be contended for. In this latest case of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, Liberal pundits are the ones committing this last error. It is their own scruples that push them to it, not a secret dislike of liberty. They recognize that Charlie Hebdo’s content was deliberately provocative and distasteful. Good liberals are always very concerned about how the West treats other nations and other cultures, setting a high bar for respect of non-Western peoples. This is not a perspective to be disdained in the wake of the shootings, but it is one that, on its own, is not always on the side of liberty or reason, as many of the high-profile reactions to the attack are making clear.
This latest attack is a painful reminder of the murderous intentions of some non-Western people (whom I label as such because they seem to have a particular animus toward the West that cannot be appeased by any amount of deference or respect for their culture.) This is what leads Jon Stewart to say something as out of character as “our goal tonight is not to make sense of this since there is no sense to be made of it” right after placing Charlie Hebdo and all other political opponents on the side of “Team Civilization.” It’s what leads someone like Ezra Klein to sound a bizarre call ignore context, history, motivation, or politics and that the murders “can only be explained” as an isolated case of madness. Klein’s website’s mission (Vox.com) is usually to put everything neatly into context and expressed in as many graphs and charts as it takes to explain events beyond their first impressions. I wonder whether anyone now writing at Vox thought it was a good idea to resist the contextual questions swirling around the Newtown massacre: America’s gun problem and lack of care for the mentally ill. But their answer in this case is: don’t connect this to any larger program or threat that might end up indicting a people group (even, it seems, the culture of radical Islamism!)
This seems to me, a flight not only from courage but clear thinking as well. It is false to say that these murderers do not represent anyone or any ideology beyond themselves. Connecting the dots from 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo, we can see that this is a laughable position to hold. Of course the murderers do not represent all of Islam, but it does mean that they represent a thriving and exportable ideology that finds Muslim adherents everywhere from France to Nigeria. It is unreasonable to say that Western liberties (like freedom of speech) have no consistent ideological enemy in radical Islamism. We ought to rush to define it so that the idea that violent spectacle and terrorism represents Islam itself does not take root. Charlie Hebdo was brave enough to define it, albeit satirically, in the pages of their magazine. While one may not support the style in which they did it or even the contours of their definition, it would be foolish let continue the project of defining the enemies of Western liberty drop for fear of reprisal.
Respect for non-Western people is, I think, a good worth pursuing, but it ought not come at the expense of the foundations of the liberal order, which I don’t think anyone liberals most of all, wants to go away. On a personal note, it is hard for me to take liberal calls to prudence seriously when attacks on traditional Christianity and other religions closer to home is the regular domain of liberal critics. I daresay liberals would believe free speech to be under attack if the ability to criticize Christianity were to be suddenly denied. But partisan cheap shots aside, the truth is that nobody, liberal or conservative, religious or none, really wants a free and open society that allows all kinds of speech, but we all need it, at least if we want to keep on acting like we’re free.