Thursday, January 08, 2015
We are Charlie
By now, we all know what happened in Paris on January 7th. Gunmen attacked the staff of the century old satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The gunmen apparently called out journalists by name before murdering them and then proclaimed, as they left the building "God is great... We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo."
Given Charlie Hebdo's penchant for religious and political satire, and given the threats and danger editorial staff have faced, this is not a surprise. But it is awful, and it is a tragedy.
Reactions have ranged. On Twitter and Instagram, the #jesuischarlie and #iamcharlie outpourings have been notable for near-universal support. Financial Times editor Tony Barber was less supportive than many, initially issuing an analysis characterizing Hebdo's satire as "editorial foolishness" and "stupid." Within a day, Barber had revised his critique, continuing to insist that Hebdo editors lacked "common sense" in their persistent provocations of Muslims.
The New York Times provided one of the most compelling analyses from an unlikely source. Conservative Catholic commentator Ross Douthat made a strong apology for blasphemy. In "The Blasphemy We Need" he wrote,
...the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.
This is very much aligned with the philosophy driving the City Club. Last year, when we scheduled Dr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute and received threatening emails, we knew it was more important than ever that he speak. That's a pattern we've experienced a number of times here, especially with speakers from the Arab World. In our position as a committed advocate of free speech and unfettered expression, we have a special burden to seek out the voices that others seek to silence, regardless of whether we agree with them or find their sense of humor genius or repugnant.
That is not to say we cannot make a distinction between free speech and hate speech. Indeed, that is a distinction we must make. In recent months, some of our members have used that term to characterize the words of a speaker. Some found that speech disagreeable, but it was far from hate speech. The thing about speech you don't like is that you get to speak, too, especially here at The City Club, where community members get to challenge and question speakers, whether the speaker is a head of state or a local activist. The answer to disagreeable speech is more speech. It is debate. It is dialogue. It is public conversation and online comments. In some cases, it is provocative satire.
At the City Club, we don't do a whole lot of satire these days. We haven't been adept at that mode of discourse since the days of the Anvil Revue and Judge Carl Freibolin. But as advocates of free speech, dialogue, and spirted engagement, we stand with Charlie Hebdo against all those who would seek to silence expression with violence.