I Am Not Charlie Hebdo, Are You?

A recent tragedy provokes different reactions.

20111102 Incendie Charlie Hebdo Paris XXe 05.jpg
By Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Millions of words and thousands of cartoons will comment on the attack on the French satirical newspaper. From my perspective, some of the best (so far) were penned by David Brooks of the New York Times who wrote an op-ed piece called “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.”

Like him, I would not have drawn the offensive cartoons — although I defend the right of the magazine to publish them without being killed. I hope you, too, would not engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that the newspaper specializes in.

Nevertheless, This Event Can Become a Teachable Moment

Let’s look at two perspectives. First, that of David Brooks:

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali [atheist, critic of Islam, and founder of an organization that works to end violence against women and children in the United States] is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

Diversity Comes at a Cost

A similar perspective was expressed in The Los Angeles Times on Nov. 18 in a column by Jonah Goldberg. Since I often don’t agree with Goldberg, I found his views particularly interesting. He wrote about feminists who objected to the shirt that Matt Taylor, project scientist of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta project, wore to a press conference when announcing “one of the most impressive scientific feats in our lifetime.”

Unfortunately for Taylor, he chose a shirt that most of us would have not have chosen to wear at a press conference. It was designed by a female friend of his and had a bunch of attractive, scantily clad women drawn from comic books holding guns. Feminists pounced and their message seemed more important to them than what the agency had accomplished.

However, as Goldberg pointed out:

We live in an age of diversity defined not merely by gender and race, but of lifestyles and values. . . .

Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone — a little — but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millenniums, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

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