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The Downside of Democracy

Charlie Hebdo - survivors edition. Cartoon of Muhammad with a tear in his eye appeared beneath this.

Charlie Hebdo – survivors edition. Cartoon of Muhammad with a tear in his eye appeared beneath this.

In the aftermath of the slaughter in Paris our instinct is to condemn the killers and mourn their victims and to defend — defend to the death, as some have said — the right of editors and cartoonists to write and draw what they please. If they want to satirize Moses or the Pope or Jesus or Mohammed, fine, let them do it.

The offices of Charlie Hebdo had been firebombed in the past by Islamic extremists, so the editors and cartoonists there knew what they were doing. Workers on the magazine weren’t constrained by prudence or the unwritten rules of ordinary decent behavior, such as civility, politeness, and live and let live. They were, as their publication says of itself, irresponsible. We know that.

We also know that safe speech that offends no one, and safe cartooning that ridicules only the conventionally ridiculous, doesn’t maintain or test the limits of free speech. People on the social margin — anarchistic, pornographic, outrageous and disobedient — people working at the disreputable edge, they’re the ones who keep the mainstream free. We have no qualms or quibbles, no questions about any of that.

But we do question whether they had the right target when they lampooned Muhammad. Every nation engaged in fighting Islamic extremists has said over and over again that it is not at war with Islam — it’s at war with Islamic extremists. French President François Hollande has distinctly and emphatically said it many times this past week. About 18 percent of the French population is Muslim. Those Muslims aren’t visitors; they are citizens of France, they are French.

Satirists have generally aimed their barbs at the rich and powerful, at the people in charge who lord it over the poor and downtrodden. But in creating cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo offended all French Muslims — a group made up, by and large, of poor and marginalized citizens. Yes, yes, the cartoons were visual statements against Muslim extremists and terrorists. But extremists and terrorists don’t change their behavior by being bashed in a low circulation satirical magazine. Charlie Hebdo’s broad brush cartoons injured the religious sensibilities of all Muslims.

In France, as in the United Sates, there aren’t laws prohibiting the publication of magazines such as Charlie Hebdo. Open, pluralistic, democratic societies don’t pass laws against publishing satirical cartoons, no matter how offensive, nor do they punish editors for adolescent rebelliousness or gross misjudgment. They don’t even pass laws against cartoonists for being offensive simply for the sake of offending.  An open and democratic society puts up with a lot. It’s worth it.

 

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.