Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on, ’tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
— William Blake
No, I am not Charlie Hebdo.
I am not out there in the crowds, demonstrating support for a publication I cannot and do not support.
As wrong as it is that a policeman and several staffers at a French magazine were killed by what are presumed to be Islamist militants, and as much as I decry their murders, I cannot get behind the idea that the dead are all heroes who died for freedom of speech. And my reasons for not doing so are as follows:
Freedom of speech, belief, association, etc., may all be protected and tolerated in France, as much as they are here in Canada, but they are not devoid of consequences, and it is not the government’s job to protect anyone from the consequences of their speech. Whoever speaks must bear those consequences on their own.
Yes, that’s right. You have the right to say, think, etc. as you will, but no one is under obligation to respect a word of it, or refrain from criticizing you for it. Indeed, it is their right to tell you when you’re being an ass, and that right is equally protected.
The law also forbids murder, but not with any special provisions in the name of protecting free speech or freedom of religion. It forbids all killing with malice aforethought, whatever the “reasons” behind it. So the murders of the Charlie staffers, and the gendarmes who confronted the killers as well, should be prosecuted as common crimes; no special (mis)treatment to elevate the killers to martyr status in the eyes of their few supporters.
And for those who are tempted to get all huffy and claim that Voltaire said something about disapproving of what someone says but defending to the death their right to say it — well, you’re an ass, because he did NOT say that. Voltaire defended freedom of religion even though he was no great believer himself (like many Enlightenment figures, he was a Deist). But when it came to works deliberately setting out to offend the clergy (recall that France was then, and in some ways still is, very priest-ridden), he was much more nuanced. Rather than defend to the death someone’s right to spew blasphemy or heresy (in this case, the philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius, whose offending work was ordered burned by the parliament of the day), he actually said, “What a fuss over an omelette!” In other words, much ado about an inconsequential mass of fluff. Who reads Helvétius anymore, except maybe philosophy majors, or those curious to see what Voltaire once called an “omelette”?
And who, before this week, read Charlie Hebdo?
Certainly not I. And I still don’t, and will not. What I have seen from that rag doesn’t impress me one bit. The cartoons are puerile, crudely drawn, often racist (and very specifically anti-Muslim, in a country with a long, shameful history of imperialism in Muslim lands), and the sentiment behind them is the same noble impulse that drives pimply schoolboys to moon old churchladies out of car windows. It may be some species of free expression, but as satire, it’s weak sauce. Not even fit to drizzle over an omelette, to be frank. I would sooner bore myself to tears over Helvétius.
Freedom of speech may be a noble concept, but it was never conceived to make saints out of wankers who style themselves as equal-opportunity offenders. One must question just how equal that opportunity really was when they were busy taking pot-shots. To question Charlie‘s motives is one’s right if one is committed to freedom of speech, and indeed one’s obligation if one is committed to considering the facts, and ALL the facts.
And I am thus committed. And that’s why I am not Charlie.
You see, I happen to think that “Come at me, bro!” is a shitty hill to go die on in the name of freedom of speech. Voltaire, too, would say the same. And he would probably say, as I do, that as unfortunate as the consequences of Charlie’s speech may be, they are also precisely what those same scribblers have been angling for, and for several years now. The only halfway surprising thing about it is that it’s taken this long, and it is only halfway surprising because anyone who knows what French Muslims are like (as Juan Cole does, very well) would realize immediately that they have nothing to apologize for in this case. Not only did a French Muslim gendarme sacrifice his life for the sake of protecting the public good, but French Muslim women have used their own freedom of speech to condemn the government’s absurd, ironic, racist and religiously discriminatory ban on hijabs…by wearing them in the colors of the French flag, demonstrating patriotism and dissent in the same instance. And most French imams, like those everywhere outside the Muslim world, routinely use their pulpits to exhort the faithful to follow the laws of the land, not impose against them. In short, French Muslims do not deserve to be singled out as terrorists, whether for special mistreatment under the law, or for abuse by so-called satirists.
I may not share their religion, now or ever, but I will damn well use my freedom of speech to defend their right to express it in any lawful and/or nonviolent way they like. And I hope I will not have to die in order to do so, because I am not the stuff of which martyrs are made. I am, as Monsieur Voltaire might put it, an omelette.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to join him and his English counterpart, John Milton, on the Areopagus. It’s a higher hill by far, and you can see better from it.
Also, it doesn’t reek of merde.