Tuesday, January 20, 2015

France and Free Expression

In case you missed it, the tally by the end of last week in France was 69-- that is, 69 people who have so far been arrested on the spurious allegation of "defending terrorism." Apparently the government of France, the same one that turned out so massively at the big Je Suis Charlie protests last week, decided that the best way to declare themselves for free speech was to arrest everyone who disagreed with them. According to Amnesty International, one French citizen has been jailed simply for saying: “I am proud to be a Muslim, I do not like Charlie, they were right to do that." Another man, while drunk, likewise defended the attacks in the presence of a police officer. For these hasty utterances, delivered in moments of intoxication or high emotion or both, these men may lose up to five years of their lives to a prison sentence, and be saddled with a criminal record to boot. Others may get seven years, if they express the same sentiments on Twitter or Facebook (according to Human Rights Watch)-- online speech being more heavily criminalized in France.

One hates to be cynical, but such incidents do make one question the sincerity of all that professed devotion to free speech and "the right to offend" one heard from the French government last week. The Charlie response to the attacks (see below) has been starkly different, and far kinder. Funny, if not entirely surprising, that the people whose friends and colleagues were just murdered are willing to be magnanimous, while the French government is being so malignant. Could it be that the French ministers, unlike Charlie, do not in fact give a flying buttress about the aims and purposes of satire -- and are mostly just pleased to step up repression against a immigrant minority?

I have as little patience as anybody for mealy-mouthed apologists for the Hebdo attacks -- but free speech is free speech. The only test of whether or not I actually support it, of course, is when we are talking about speech that I dislike. Everyone believes in free speech for his own opinions, after all. Every regime is happy to have its own dictats freely and widely promoted. The rights question arises precisely when people do not agree with each other, and do not get along.

Besides, there is an obvious moral distinction between the various longwinded, premeditated apologetics about the Charlie attacks one sees, and innocuous lone remarks made in moments of (perhaps justified) anger. Both should be protected from prosecution and reprisal, of course, but the second should inspire more of our sympathy than the first-- even though the second appears to be inspiring prosecutions instead. It's hard not to sympathize with Muslim people in France who feel sufficiently alienated from their government and the Je Suis Charlie movement to say in a moment of frustration some of the things voiced above -- especially given that, in light of these recent arrests, it is clear they are living in a context in which they risk persecution. Yet no one is likely to march for them and their rights, in France or elsewhere.

It was very easy to express solidarity with free speech immediately after the attacks, when everyone else seemed to be doing so and the back-peddalers and the aspersion-casters had not yet shown their faces. But surely now comes the real test of whether we are supporting the Charlie Hebdo staff for sound reasons -- their courage in the face of threats, their willingness to take on religious ideas that need mocking and taboos that need breaking, the importance of free expression, etc. -- or whether we are acting out of anti-Muslim prejudice. Are we going to apply the same defense of free speech we've all been making this past week to the people who disagree with us? Can we manage to pass so obvious a test of our own sincerity? Can we evade so visible a trap laid for our moral obtuseness?

Some will rather callously suggest that the anti-Muslim fever is mild compared to the attacks that inspired it, and therefore one should not waste breath condemning it. David Frum was complaining in the Atlantic on January 10th that:
"Even before the killers and hostage-takers met their end, voices were raised to warn against the danger of an anti-Muslim 'backlash.' Lately, these warnings have been issued even before the completion of the terror attack that might supposedly provoke such a backlash."
Not even Frum, however, appears able to think of a reason why this is a bad thing, though he seems to dislike it. He writes: "Ugly incidents of [anti-Muslim] intimidation do occur." After listing several cases, he adds: "Any and every one of them is an outrageous offense against law and the equal dignity of persons." Okay, so anti-Muslim acts of hatred do occur. And they are terrible -- an "outrageous offense." But we shouldn't talk about them very often, at least not immediately after a terrorist attack, according to David Frum.

Besides, when people warn against an anti-Muslim backlash, they do not just have in mind individual acts of violence, vandalism, and terrorism directed against mosques, Muslim neighborhoods, people in Muslim dress, etc. -- though these have also have been taking place in France since the Charlie attacks. They also mean to refer to the nominally legal authorities who have eroded civil liberties protections in profound ways for Muslim people (and for all of us) over recent decades-- often in the name of counter-terror and defense.

As we can see, warnings that this erosion of rights might be carried even further are already being justified by events. Muslim people in France are already being arrested for speech acts that would undoubtedly be protected in a different political context, and if uttered by white Christians. And the penalties they face are not mild ones. Five years in prison -- for a single remark -- is a serious matter!

The ringleader of this repression would appear to be prime minister Manuel Valls-- a supposed member of the French Socialist Party, but I get the sense he stands in relation to the legacy of Leon Blum, say, in about the relation that Tony Blair stands to Keir Hardie. Valls has previously spearheaded campaigns against hate speech and anti-Semitism in France, and appears to be wielding similar dubious legal instruments to crack down on citizens today who make various ill-judged remarks in the hearing of police. It shall be a crime in France, evidently, to blaspheme the honor of Charlie Hebdo. "100 lashes if you don't die laughing" indeed -- it's gone from jokey Hebdo caption to principle of French law.

And what do the Charlie Hebdo writers, meanwhile, think of their new admirers in the state? Are they grateful for the repression? Do they too believe their freedom of expression is best protected by prosecuting people who express disapproval of it? Do they desire revenge and reprisal and anti-Muslim legislation?

Judge for yourself. Here's how one Charlie columnist described the message of their latest cover image, according to the Guardian:
"We feel that we have to forgive what happened. I think those who have been killed, if they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to ask them why have they done this … We feel at the Charlie Hebdo team that we need to forgive."
Meanwhile, inside that latest issue -- impossible to find on paper but easy to purchase electronically on the Charlie iPhone App -- we find images such as one that mocks the anti-immigrant French National Front, who are depicted carrying signs that read "Je suis raciste" and "Je suis Charlie Martel." Another drawing, by Renald Luzier -- who also penned the famous "Tout est pardonné" cover image -- shows two columns of events from the past week, one marked "+" and the other "-". On the side négatif is a picture of the artist quivering (with nerves? revulsion?) next to a square-jawed and glowering French politician. The politician turns out to be Manuel Valls, and the negative event in question was having to shake hands with him.

It doesn't seem that Charlie Hebdo is craving any revenge prosecutions, even though they would seem to have the most reason of anyone to feel vengeful. Can it be that they actually care about the broader principle of free expression, and not just their own private rights? Probably so-- but they may also have grasped an even more crucial point: namely, that one's own rights are never truly safe until everyone's are. After all, the prosecution of "hate speech" could just as easily have been used to shut down and jail the Charlie Hebdo writers, under a different government. If a comedian can be locked up for anti-Semitism, then the artist behind a drawing of Muhammad could easily be accused in court of Islamophobia.

And there still are a lot of people in our media crying racism against Charlie Hebdo -- despite the exemplary and humbling degree of compassion its writers have shown toward their own persecutors. Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books judges the Muhammad cartoons in Charlie a moral failure (though he deplores the attacks) and accuses them of cultural insensitivity. He offers an interpretation of the latest cover image very different from the one given above by the magazine's own writers. He says: "The current edition of the paper shows Muhammad in such a way that his white turban looks like two balls and his long pink face a penis. The Prophet is being dubbed a prick."

I find this interpretation of the drawing highly implausible, in light of the intense and genuine emotion with which the Charlie staff described the way they settled on the latest cover image, and in light of the columnist's description of what they intended it to convey. But regardless, I tend to think that even off-color jokes about religious figures can sometimes contain points that are worth making (see the previous post), so I'm not as appalled as Parks would like me to be.

Parks displays a deeper confusion than this, however. He writes of the attacks and their aftermath:
"The following questions arise: Now that the whole world is my neighbor, my immediate Internet neighbor, do I make any concessions at all, or do I uphold the ancient tradition of satire at all costs? And again, is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is? Do I have the moral authority to decide this?"
What a pretty ideological mess we've come to, when people who are drawing cartoons -- which can be viewed or not viewed at the individual's discretion -- are accused of somehow trying to "drag" people "kicking and screaming" to the point of agreeing with them. Let me add: they are being described this way a bare two weeks after so many of these same cartoonists were literally dragged kicking and screaming across their office floor before being shot through the head and left to die. Who was trying to force whom to live in what century, again?

As Zineb al-Razoui, the same Charlie Hebdo columnist cited above, said in an interview with The Guardian, when asked what she would say to those offended by the cover image: “I would tell them it is a drawing and they are not obliged to buy this edition of Charlie Hebdo if they don’t appreciate our work." This is how liberalism ought, ultimately, to go (even though it is plainly not going this way in France right now, much to that country's shame). The idea is that I get to say my piece and you cannot physically prevent me from doing so. But there is nothing I can do in turn to stop you from ignoring what I've written, or arguing against the ideas I've expressed, or even from detesting me and mocking me and trying to outdo me in the realm of satire and vituperative criticism.

The reason why liberalism is meant to work this way is not that truth is relative and conflict is good and that all these expressive acts will have equal value. The reason for it, rather -- and the reason we have to stand up for the rights both of the Charlie Hebdo staff and the people currently being prosecuted in France for supposedly "glorifying terrorism"-- is in fact precisely the same reason that Parks himself alludes to: the problem of moral authority. I may believe very strongly that my views are absolutely correct and yours are absolutely wrong. It's possible that I'm right. It is possible that you are right. Which of us is to be handed the power to force his belief on the other? If we are truly equals, possessed of the same worth as human beings, why is one of us to be handed this authority and not the other?

It is the same reason, at last, that Ronald Dworkin provides for the right to free expression, in a classic defense of the principle from the New York Review of Books. In that case, the question was over the prosecution of pornography. Dworkin writes:
“Exactly because the moral environment in which we all live is in good part created by others […] the question of who shall have the power to help shape that environment, and how, is of fundamental importance, though it is often neglected in political theory. Only one answer is consistent with the ideals of political equality: that no one may be prevented from influencing the shared moral environment, through his own private choices, tastes, opinions, and example, just because these tastes or opinions disgust those who have the power to shut him up or lock him up.”
Tim Parks is right: none of us can be trusted with the power to be able to coerce other people by force into accepting our views and cultural values, no matter how right and important we think those views and values are. Yet this is a reason to stand with the Charlie Hebdo staff, not a reason to condemn them.

Of course, the equality argument for free speech can be misleading. The philosophers will point out, correctly, that liberal institutions can never be truly and completely "neutral" between different worldviews. Free expression can be used to express all illiberal and nonliberal ideas, of course, even in a liberal society; but institutions that protect free expression as a right can only be justified on the basis of certain values (such as that of "political equality"), that themselves make controversial claims about human nature. These are claims, that is to say, that are not shared across all possible worldviews, to put it mildly. (See Brian Barry's "How Not to Defend Liberal Institutions," for more on this point).

While liberalism may not force views on anyone, therefore, it often does force behavior on people, in  limited ways, that can only be justified on the basis of particular worldviews. What kind of behavior? Behavior like not killing people because of a cartoon they drew; behavior like not arresting people just because they've defended actions you find abhorrent.

To people who believe that protecting people from acts that may be validated by "glorifying terrorism" really is more important than free expression -- or to people who believe that "idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed," as one English translation of the Quran puts it --  liberal institutions cannot honestly say: "We are neutral with respect to your worldview." Such institutions in fact compel behavior that conflicts with both belief systems. They compel people, by their actions if not their words, to place the protection of human life above the protection of God's honor (at least as some people conceive the latter). They compel people, again, by their actions if not their words, to value free speech more highly than whatever "security" could arise from persecuting disagreement.

But liberal institutions can honestly say this to people who fundamentally disapprove of liberalism: they can say: you are an equal member of this society, and are free to hold whatever ideas you choose, and to try by every expressive and non-coercive means possible to convince everyone else of the truth of these ideas and to bring society into line with them. No one will be permitted to stop you. Unless, that is, you try to force the change through violence, prosecution, or persecution. Unless, that is, you start "dragging people kicking and screaming," into your own idea of what your century should look like. Then liberal institutions will intercede.

The actions of the French government after these attacks show that "liberal institutions" as described here are an ideal construct, not a reality. The actual societies we inhabit almost never behave so restrainedly. They apply their liberal principles lopsidedly, hold some to a different standard than others. And they often persecute those who disagree, as the French government is doing now.

The question for all of us is whether we will insist that they do better. Will we continue to hold to the ideal? Do we mean what we've said this past week about "free expression"? Or maybe we will end up proving our critics right. Maybe we will show ourselves to have been racist from the start.

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