The terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo bring into sharp relief a major contradiction in the intellectual framework of modern democracy. In fact, it highlights a fault line. Freedom of speech is one of the supposedly unshakeable pillars of liberal social order. But the way liberals have dealt with the issue brings into question whether it is a pillar or a facade.
Of course there were the massive demonstrations in favor of Charlie Hebdo, the cries of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, the self-identification with Charlie Hebdo (“Je suis…”). The Parisian march of unity comprised a million-plus souls, and that was not the only such demonstration. More than forty world leaders participated in the Parisian rally, including both Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Other voices were to be heard, though. There were those who refused the identification “Je ne suis pas… “), citing e.g. the cartoons blaspheming the Trinity, promoting racism, and the like. In their minds, freedom of speech is not an absolute value but one that must be balanced with other freedoms. But this then begs the question of the standard to which appeal must be made in order to strike such a balance. It stands to reason that any norm that is to balance freedom of speech with the right to a good name, the rights of religion, and the like, must stand over the various freedoms and rights that are to be balanced against each other.
This is an issue of long-standing debate. One thing all participants in that debate agree upon: these things are not deserving of death, as it were, and they certainly do not permit any group’s taking the law into their own hands to mete out justice in terms of their own lights. Which, in a nutshell, is what Islamic terrorists do.
Freedom of speech is problematic. But not for real liberals. For them, freedom of speech is an absolute value, a categorical imperative. A liberal is one who announces without qualms, “je suis Charlie Hebdo,” who says, while I adamantly oppose what you say, I adamantly support your right to say it.
This then leads one to wonder about the policy of American liberals, led by the White House but quite noticeable across the various media outlets, questioning the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons disparaging the prophet. Various news agencies including the New York Times and CNN have a policy of not publishing such material. They claim that they do not publish any material that is insensitive or offensive or provocative. But that claim rings hollow when one considers the insensitive, provocative, and offensive material they have published respecting e.g. Christianity.
Is it simply a matter of fear? Is it that American liberals are worried about reprisals from jihadists and are taking the safe route in order e.g. to protect employees, as CNN president Jeff Zucker claimed?
That may be a part of it, but there is more to this story. The standing policy of the White House to refuse to identify this sort of violence as Islamic terrorism speaks directly to the point. The preferred term is “violent extremism” and any attempt to connect such acts to Islam per se is tersely rebutted. These acts may be done in the name of Islam but having nothing to do with real Islam. That is the story line. And it has been the story line for a long time for those who denigrate the “War on Terror” as an excuse for the Western powers to continue meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.
In fact, the White House has had no qualms not only in not blaming such attacks on Islam, but in blaming freedom of speech precisely for provoking such attacks. This is how it explained the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. According to spokesmen and spokeswomen ranging from Susan Rice to Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama himself, this attack by armed Muslims, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, one of whom, Christopher Stevens, was the US ambassador to Libya, was provoked by a “despicable” video, the creator of which was jailed, ostensibly for violating the terms of his probation.
The sacrifice of free speech to accommodate the demands of a certain group, regardless of that group’s use of violence, is simply the implementation of a political strategy that has proved effective in the past and, it is hoped, will continue to prove effective in the future. It is the strategy of cooptation, using the mechanism of grievance.
It works like this. In a democracy, various interest groups enter the political process to ensure their interests, demands, claims, are taken care of. Politicians are the mediators of this process; they embrace these interests, or even work to manufacture them, in order to “bring them into the political process,” to get chunks of the voting populace involved in a distributive mechanism whereby politicians cater to the interests of these groups (or, more likely, the leaderships of these groups) in exchange for votes.
Lobbyists have of course been involved in this process ever since the beginning of political time. But what democracy brings to the table is the opportunity not only for lobbyists but for all citizens to “get in on the action,” as it were, and derive tangible benefit from government intervention in their favor. This of course sets up citizens against each other, divides them into conflicting groups, pits the one group against the other. And these conflicts can only be resolved by politicians mediating the various conflicts from above. In this manner, everyone comes to depend on the political process to mediate their conflicts, which ostensibly would otherwise be resolved in the fashion of the law of the jungle, but in reality would not exist if the political process did not favor their promotion. (I have written about this in more detail elsewhere.)
Every group with a grievance, real or imagined, is fodder for integration into the “coalition of the aggrieved,” which is the means by which certain political parties maintain themselves in power. In the modern constellation, these would include labor (against capital), women (against patriarchy, effectively white males), blacks (against whites), homosexuals (against, well, Christians), atheists (against religion in public life – that would be Christians in public life), even nature (against man himself). Every one of these groups claims (in the case of nature, vicariously) victim status over against a tangible perpetrator, who then finds himself in the dock, to answer for the allegations. Regardless of the outcome (and these “lawsuits” don’t ever seem to get resolved), the political gain is that the politicians and the party, by mediating this process of grievance and allegation, have gained the support of the aggrieved group, whereby are derived votes, shock troops, financing, and the like.
Where does “radical Islam” fit in here? Well, according to the narrative, Muslims are victims of Western expansionism and colonialism. Because Islamic countries are for the most part economically backward, the grievance takes on the form of economic exploitation, and thus is tailor-made to be incorporated into the grievance coalition. So what the politicians are doing in America, and more surreptitiously elsewhere as well, is making every attempt to coopt Muslim discontent as yet another component of their grievance coalition on the domestic political front. And that requires a certain degree of pandering to Muslims, such as avoiding expressions of whatever form in whatever forum that might give offense to Muslims. It is the price to be paid to get them on board.
And what of freedom of speech, freedom of expression? Yes, historically liberals arguably have championed this value above all others. But what happened in the time since liberals have gained the ascendancy in media, in education, in academia – say, since the 1980s? A peculiar phenomenon has arisen in short order – the phenomenon known as political correctness. Infringements on speech, speech codes, suppression of dissenting voices across a whole range of topics, have become the order of the day, without said liberals’ batting an eye. It would seem that liberals championed free speech as long as they were in the minority, but having gained the ascendancy in these areas, free speech was the first thing to go.
This brings us to the current conflict, which, behind the bromides and in terms of stark realities, is a conflict for ascendancy between two groups claiming the right to restrict speech according to their lights. These would be liberals, secularists, functional atheists, on the one hand, and Muslims on the other. For all their protestations, neither one of these groups will give up their claim to restrict speech without a fight. It will be interesting to see how the politicians of the grievance coalition – those intrepid lion-tamers of the public square – will deal with and resolve this conflict going forward. The other members of the grievance coalition have hitherto been appeased and mollified without too much difficulty, but will Muslims prove to be as amenable to cooptation? Time will tell.
But there is one more point to make. A famous editorial in the September 21, 1897 edition of The New York Sun assured a little girl named Virginia, and the world with her, that “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Perhaps The New York Times can address a similar article to this issue, and assure all of us that “Yes, Viriginia, there is freedom of speech.” For it seems that we need that assurance.
Or rather, those of us in the know will understand with a wink and a nod that such an assurance actually would carry as much weight as the Sun’s editorial of 1897. We have known for some time that it is not a question of whether speech can or should be restricted. By the nature of the case it will be restricted, one way or another, for one purpose or another. The question is, according to what standard will it be restricted?
The fact of the matter is, anyone who argues for unrestricted freedom of speech is, wittingly or unwittingly, aiding and abetting a fraud.