Nous Sommes Charlie

Yeah, I have to join in on this. “Je suis Charlie.” That’s personal. But there’s also more: We, the American faculty, are the protectors of freedom with our pens and pencils just as are the cartoonists who are taking up their tools today in defense of that which should need no defense, the right to express an opinion–even if someone else doesn’t like it. We need to be just as outraged and public as they are. One cartoon I saw today showed two figures, one pointing a gun at the other, the other pointing a pen back. The caption read, “Ou est le courage?”

Where is ours? Where is mine?

John K. Wilson, just a few hours ago, posted on a University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression report and, quite correctly, criticized aspects of the report (which, on the whole, he supports) for mushy definitions of acceptable limits on freedom of expression.

“Mushy.” That’s my word, not his. But it describes, for me, what we, as a group, have become. So worried about not insulting anyone, we allow ourselves to be browbeaten into  a “civility” that, well, that none of us even really can define–beyond recognizing that it can be used as a cudgel against certain types of speech.

“Certain types of speech.”

I think, in light of current events, I am becoming a free-speech absolutist. You open the door to restricting any speech and… well, if you give a mouse a cookie….

Some years ago, I began to get annoyed at people who use “hillbilly” unthinkingly. Both of my parents were born in Appalachia and I grew up identifying with the culture of those mountains. But I was not ready to ban such insults, or to punish those who made them, wittingly or not–even though abuse of the mountain folk goes back centuries. So ingrained and common in American culture that very few recognize them as abusive, attitudes toward Appalachians can be as pernicious as just about any toward an “other” and go hand-in-hand with power imbalances that almost no one outside of the mountains know exist.

None of that, however, is an excuse for shutting anyone else up. Neither is a racist, sexist or any other “ist” comment. Why not? Because of that slippery slope I alluded to.

The bottom of that slope is attacks like those we saw today against Charlie Hebdo.

At the risk of outraging some, I am coming to believe that we need to protect even those teachers who may make the wrong sort of joke, say, in the classroom. The real “political correctness,” I now see, lies in protecting even the ass–as long as the ass restricts himself or herself to words or images. Yes, there are power imbalances in classrooms, just as there are in nations and in personal relationships, but that does not mean that punishment for any usage of words or images can be tolerated. For, if retaliation of any sort is allowed, it will escalate–heading the retaliaters down the slope toward joining today’s attackers. The difference is only one of degree.

“But they said… ” Yeah, sure, and they shouldn’t have. But we can’t turn the tables and act badly toward them. Instead of trying to stop it through punishment, we need to start doing it through the much more difficult but, in the long run, more effective methods pioneered by the likes of Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and, yes, even Jesus.

Real “civility” will only come through real education; it will never happen through punishment or restrictions on speech.

Until we learn that, incidents like today’s will always occur. And they are the greatest incivility of all.

7 thoughts on “Nous Sommes Charlie

  1. To best understand the history of this publication and its significance for freedom of speech in the face of fundamentalism, one must see the documentary “It’s Hard Being Loved by Jerks” (“C’est dur d’etre aime par des cons”), e.g. as reviewed here: http://hour.ca/2008/10/23/jerk-chickens/

    The film has occasionally aired on the Sundance Channel and the viewer is struck by the comparison in the documentary of the response of the French courts with those in England where freedom of speech and Western liberties have been compromised as Sharia law has been given legal standing (cf. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2587215/Sharia-Law-enshrined-British-legal-lawyers-guidelines-drawing-documents-according-Islamic-rules.html).

    It is difficult to say how American courts would handle such a case as that in France — indeed, one must actually fear to learn the answer.

    Charlie Hebdo est mort! Vive Charlie Hebdo!

  2. In fact, I believe that “the bottom of the slope” is NOT represented by this horrible attack, but when society accedes to their demands. When we as a civilization succumb to self-censorship, then the terrorists win.

  3. “So worried about not insulting anyone, we allow ourselves to be browbeaten into a “civility” that, well, that none of us even really can define–beyond recognizing that it can be used as a cudgel against certain types of speech.”

    And worried for good (or poor) reason: speech codes, suppressive community and university standards meant to protect organizations more than individuals from liability, policies meant to force conformity and err on the side of submission…We must face the fact that a publication protected by French law such as Charlie Hebdo truly wouldn’t stand a chance in vast regions of the United States which are dominated by ink dedicated to suppression rather than expression.

  4. Pingback: Strange Bedfellows… at the Kiddie Table? | The Academe Blog

  5. What are your thoughts on duck dynasty? I mean the homophobic comments and AMC’s decisions afterwards… Also, what about the borders between speech and expression?

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