With the people of France and decent people everywhere, today I mourn the deaths of the editors, cartoonists, and staff of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. With the people of France and decent people everywhere, today I also condemn in the strongest possible terms, the murder of people who exercised their right to free expression in the public sphere. But in contrast to many decent people French and otherwise I do not, as the British paper The Independent said today, “… honour the stance they took as the most daring of all publishers in Europe.” Let me tell you why.
It is generally agreed that the folks at Charlie Hebdo are equal-opportunity offenders, at least in that they’re perfectly happy to insult Jews and Christians as well as Muslims (I have yet to learn if they have ever insulted secularism or atheism). So it’s certainly true that they can’t be accused of somehow being uniquely anti-Muslim. It’s also true that at least some of their satire bears an honorable message … when I browsed through some of their past cartoons I was struck by their November 2011 cover (printed just after their offices were firebombed by another Muslim extremist), with the powerful caption “Love is Stronger than Hate.” No better message, no better response. But the other side of their satire is aptly illustrated in this July 2013 cover, which reads “The Koran is shit — it doesn’t stop bullets.”
This and other even-more-offensive images, it seems to me, demonstrate a problem common to free people: we often do a crap job of exercising the freedom we’ve been given. Now let me be abundantly clear: with Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Hall, although “I disapprove of what you say … I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It is not the purview of government or society to squelch a voice that speaks an unpopular, inappropriate, or offensive message. I’m also not against satire: there is something about people in power that can be wounded by mockery as by nothing else, and there is something about biting humor that is unique in its ability to comfort the abused and rouse the apathetic. But often we forget that the pen, like the sword, and like freedom itself, can be wielded well and poorly, for good and for ill.
There is a great difference between satire and gratuitous insult. According to Merriam-Webster, satire is “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly” (emphasis mine). If I may paraphrase, satire is humor directed at a bad target in such a way as to highlight or expose its badness. This is to distinguish it from just plain insult and meanness. It’s the difference between my saying generically (but in a funny-to-some manner) “you are evil and disgusting” (which you very well may be), or specifically and humorously pointing out something evil and disgusting about your behavior or speech. The latter, I submit, is satire, while the former is merely being a boor.
H.L. Menken once observed that “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” I hope I’ve made clear that I believe that what several have described as “the right to offend” must be preserved in a free society. But the simple fact that a scoundrel is defended does not in any way make him less a scoundrel. The Apostle Paul said in 1 Cor. 10:23, “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” I might make it a little more blunt: you have the right to be a jerk, but you still shouldn’t be one.
And that’s where perhaps our French brethren, like us here in America, have missed the boat. The French national motto is “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” or “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (brotherhood).” The Fraternity seems missing, I think, when one insults for the sake of insulting rather than to make an actual point. And however true it is that the Qur’an (like the Christian Bible) has been unsuccessful at stopping far too many bullets, to call it “shit” is a gratuitous and ineffectual attack on all Muslims, not merely the violent ones.
I hope the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo staff — and of two policemen, one himself a Muslim — are caught and brought to justice. I hope one day in Syria and Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan, people are as free to ridicule faith (or non-faith) as we are in the West. I also hope those of us who have that freedom will learn to use it as a tool for good and change, instead of as a license to wound indiscriminately.