Post-Charlie Hebdo: Freedom and its Discontents

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Not freedom from offense. Freedom to offend.

“Allahu Akbar,” the Arabic phrase defined as “God is great” or “God is greater,” was the lethal bit of nonsense snarled from the mouths of the Paris murderers as they gunned down satirists and supermarket shoppers last week with Islam on their minds. And now as our collective grief gives way to rumination and debate, the case for free speech and its most obvious corollary, the freedom to offend, has never been greater. And that means it’s time for another sit-down with the likes of Voltaire, Orwell and Chomsky. At the very least, let’s begin with a tweeted message by Salman Rushdie:

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

Not freedom from offense. Freedom to offend.
Is it freedom from offense? Or is it the freedom to offend?

Is there a more contemporary moral exemplar that Rushdie, whose The Satanic Verses caused a cultural combustion more than a quarter of a century ago? In his attempt to engender a less doctrinaire reading of the core Muslim holy text. the Qur’an, Rushdie’s 1988 polemic depicted a “fallible” Mohammed and his worship of three pagan goddesses, thus violating Islam’s monotheistic prescription. For such “apostasy,” Rushdie enjoyed (and endured) roughly 20 years of around-the-clock police protection in the U.K. following a fatwa on his life by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

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For our current cri de coeur on liberty to be more than a hollow rallying cry, our battle for free speech must be more than catnip for atheists. Our right to free speech must be synonymous with the right to offend — and not just by blaspheming the devout. On this point, George Orwell was also instructive:

…if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Sing it, Voltaire!
Sing it, Voltaire!

Charlie Hebdo was and is the worthy, subversive offspring to a much earlier generation of doubting Thomases, of Age of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire who rattled their sabers at the Catholic Church and attempted ecrasez l’infame — to crush the infamous. For assailing the absolutism of the church and the “divine right of kings,” Voltaire was imprisoned and ultimately exiled, but his real target, of course, was authority in general. He was a renegade writ large, a gadfly par excellence.

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That Voltaire wrote during the Enlightenment makes him not some historical footnote. His writing, in fact, was the very gateway to modernity. More than anything else, Voltaire’s Age of Enlightenment catalyzed the past 300 years of reason, inquiry, skepticism, intellectual honesty, and, most significantly, the freedom of speech that we must now preserve, protect and defend once again. Age-old institutions like the priesthood and the crown were particularly ripe for ridicule in Voltaire’s time, and he was gleefully impolitic in his assault on the ancien regime.Despite his invective toward Rome, however, he was a deist rather than an atheist; he didn’t eschew a belief in a divine plan altogether. Instead, he thought faith, albeit not in a biblical god, was entirely commensurate with the newly avowed rationalism that animated much Enlightenment thinking. He argued against a religiously appointed monarchy as particularly noxious:

Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.

He also went further:

Christianity is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. … My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.

Voltaire has also long been credited — apocryphally — with one of the more famous declarations in Western political thought:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

That actually came from Voltaire’s biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who coined the phrase now invoked as readily as “Je Suis Charlie” in all of its placard and hashtag incarnations.

While the current craze for free speech may be the plat du jour of the liberal-minded everywhere, that wasn’t always the case. Take Ayaan Hirsi Ali. a Somali-born former Muslim. Last April, her invitation to receive an honorary degree from Brandeis University was rescinded. A onetime member of the Labour Party in Holland and a fierce critic of Islam’s treatment of women, Ali became the victim of an all-too-troubling phenomenon of our addle-brained, politically correct age: selective moral outrage. Brandeis president Fredrick Lawrence declared Ali’s rebuke of many of Islam’s illiberal tenets to be inconsistent with its values:

…She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.  For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.

Rolling the Brandeis: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Rolling the Brandeis: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Among other things, Ali’s detractors (mostly on the left) had assailed her views as Islamophobic and found her rhetoric on the Middle East inappropriately bellicose. You needn’t be a supporter of military action against Muslim nations to recoil at such spurious ideological mush. As a child in East Africa, Ali witnessed the genital mutilation of women, arranged marriages, an atmosphere of virulent anti-Semitism. She is fully on the record about her teenage years in Kenya and the feverish Holocaust denial she was taught by Saudi benefactors. So it’s a tragic irony that such an incident occurred at Brandeis University, of all places, a Massacuhsetts liberal arts college founded as a secular, yet Jewish-sponsored institution in the wake of the Holocaust.

Is the West serious about embracing free speech? Or is the carnage in France, for all of its barbarism, just heinous enough to keep everyone on trend? How does a seemingly “progressive” society understand the difference between hate speech and free speech? When are so-called “hate speech laws” antithetical to free speech? Presumably, most people agree that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre must have legal implications. But the uncomfortable truth is that if we are free to scorn the pious, either through satire or comedy, we must be able to do the same for gays, blacks, women, anyone, however vulgar and uncomfortable it makes them — or us. An increasingly secular society must accept that satire is, by definition, ecumenical. How can we defend the right to insult Muslims but censor ourselves when a homophobic slur or racial epithet becomes too coarse for our silkily sensitive ears? We can’t have it both ways, and we shouldn’t.

In 1978, the ACLU bravely defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois, a suburban area of Chicago with a large Jewish population and not a few Holocaust survivors. Invoking the right to free speech and assembly, the ACLU made its unwavering defense of free speech a bedrock moment in the long historical battle for freedom, and it ingeniously justified the neo-Nazis’ right to march by pointing toward the Civil Rights era. For it was at that time that heavily racist southern towns claimed that the marches of African Americans and other civil rights protesters were a nuisance and “disturbing the peace.” Despite howls of indignation, a Jewish lawyer, Joseph Burton. admonished the ACLU to take up the case. In the end the Illinois Supreme Court not only ruled in favor of the neo-Nazis’ right to march, but asserted that the swastika was a symbol, however revolting and egregious, and therefore Constitutionally protected.

There are few things as vile as a parade of Jew-baiting Holocaust deniers. But whether you subscribe to their viewpoint or not is to gravely miss the point. Free expression isn’t intended as a soothing emollient — it’s a sacred right to celebrate every bit as much as a burden to protect. Indeed, while the march never actually materialized, it was a rare, undiluted victory in the name of liberty. It’s not freedom from offense that’s sacrosanct. It’s the freedom to offend that we must cherish.

It has been 37 years since that triumph of freedom of expression, but what kind of Western liberal society have we become? Yes, we espouse tolerance, we embrace pluralism, we have thankfully moved away (for the most part) from overtly discriminatory practices for the most historically aggrieved groups. Equality under the law, however, is no safeguard for justice if our secular, rights-based society only lampoons what comports with our own contradictory, politically correct standards. Ponder Noam Chomsky, a sure-footed leftist if ever there was one:

Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.

It remains to be seen what the post-Charlie Hebdo era will bring. I hope we abandon the emancipatory charade in which we glorify “freedom” while acting as cops in the name of liberty.

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Adam Epstein

Adam Epstein’s theatrical productions have received 46 Tony nominations and garnered 12 Tony Awards, one of which Adam himself received as a producer of Hairspray in 2003. Adam’s other credits include A View From a Bridge, The Crucible, Amadeus, The Wedding Singer and Cry-Baby. In the West End, both his productions of Amadeus and Hairspray earned multiple Olivier nominations and Hairspray was awarded a record 11 nominations, winning four, including Best Musical. An adjunct faculty member of NYU, Adam has also been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Miami. In the fall of 2016, Adam will be a graduate student in American studies at Brown University.