Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and European Hypocrisy

It has been two weeks since the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, were attacked by gunmen. The attack on free speech and the murder of cartoonists led to police shootouts with gunmen, a European crackdown on suspected militants, and demonstration in support of those who take pen to paper – even if they do so to offend.

Since then, there has been no shortage of people celebrating the right to free speech as an unalloyed good. All over Europe, and in many places in the United States, sympathetic observers have adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie” in solidarity with the newspaper. The attack on free speech has been widely treated as an attack at the core of Western values.

Demonstrators in Paris. January 11, 2015. (c) Olivier Ortelpa.

Demonstrators in Paris. January 11, 2015. (c) Olivier Ortelpa.

That’s all well and good, but it also omits a few important details. In the past, I’ve commented on the tendency of people to understand the world as divided between opposing camps of heroes and villains. And when people identify one, they seem to reflexively look for the other.

There can be no doubt that the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo were villains, but that doesn’t necessarily make Charlie Hebdo the hero. A lot of the people who happily declare, “Je suis Charlie” ignore the fact that much of what the newspaper had to say was sophomoric at best. It took physical bravery to print what they printed in the face of death threats, and the writers of Charlie Hebdo who were murdered died because they were willing to face those dangers to get their message across. That makes them martyrs.

But their messages were often stupid. Perhaps that makes them tragic, but it doesn’t really make them heroes. That, in turn, doesn’t make their murderers any less the villains.

Sometimes -in fact, oftentimes – life is complicated. And there are other shades of grey in what might otherwise pass for a black-and-white story. Take, for example, the widespread celebration of the principle of free speech.

Like many other Americans, I am a bit of an absolutist on free speech. There are, of course, a few canonical examples of proscribed speech: falsely shouting fire in a crowded room, inciting others to commit violent crimes, and so on. Outside of those cases, however, I am a firm believer in the principle that the only proper response to bad speech is good speech.

That is, I believe, an American principle. It is not, however, a European principle – even though, in their defense of Charlie Hebdo, many Europeans have liked to pretend that it is. That confusion has muddled the issue, and many people on this side of the Atlantic have missed out on the nuance.

Charlie Hebdo was founded as the successor of a previous publication, Hara-Kiri. The reason that this rebranding had been necessary was that Hara-Kiri was under a ban imposed by France’s ministry of the interior for publishing a cartoon that was deemed offensive to the memory of the recently-deceased Charles De Gaulle.

That occurred in 1970. But there are also more recent examples, many of them dealing with the crime of lèse-majasté, or offending the sovereign.

For example:

In 2005, a publisher in Poland was fined several thousand dollars for insulting Pope John Paul II. In 2008, another man was charged with insulting the Polish President, Leck Kaczynski, after an internet prank reminiscent of Dan Savage’s infamous attack on Rick Santorum.

In 2007, a man in the Netherlands was sentenced to a week in prison and fined for making explicit sexual remarks about Queen Beatrix.

Also in 2007, a satirical magazine in Spain was fined for printing a cartoon that depicted the  then Prince of Asturias, now the current King of Spain, in an undignified and explicit posture with his wife, Letizia.

The other category of prohibited speech in Europe falls under the label of hate speech. In much of Europe it is illegal to print racial epithets. It is illegal to display Nazi regalia. And it is illegal to deny, minimize, or excuse the Holocaust. A number of people have been tried and jailed in Europe, sometimes for terms of several years, for the crime of Holocaust denial.

From an outsider’s perspective, much of this appears self-defeating. To quote the wisdom of Tyrion Lannister:

When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar; you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.

Arresting, trying, and jailing people for making offensive, stupid, or ludicrous remarks privileges  them with a mantle of martyrdom to which they properly have no claim.

But, let’s put that aside for a second and return to Charlie Hebdo.

After the attack on that newspaper’s headquarters, we were treated to a string of observers extolling the virtue of free speech. Leaders from around the world marched in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, under the premise that the very core of western values are under attack. People referenced Voltaire, saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It was a comforting display, but it was also a lie. The truth is that Europe has clearly demonstrated that it is willing to criminalize speech that Europeans find offensive, but now it wants to tell Muslims that they have to endure speech that Muslims find offensive out of some broader commitment to free speech.

Charlie Hebdo strikes a rare melancholic note.

Charlie Hebdo strikes a rare melancholic note.

That stand is untenable to anyone who values intellectual consistency and degrading to Muslim immigrants who are, in effect, told ‘everyone has a right to free speech, but some have more of a right than others.’

If it is illegal for Spaniards to print offensive cartoons about the monarch-in-waiting, why shouldn’t it be illegal to print offensive cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad? The answer isn’t free speech. The answer is that Prince Phillip is ‘our’ scared cow, and Mohammed is ‘theirs’.

And it is exactly that distinction that stands in the way of integrating immigrants, a challenge that Europe must somehow grapple with.

At the same time, nativists like Marine Le Pen and the National Front strike a more transparent note when they liken the effect of Muslim immigration to the Nazi occupation of Western Europe.

So does PEGIDA – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West – at their weekly rallies in Dresden.

Their last rally, on January 12, drew more than 25,000 participants. The one scheduled for January 19 was cancelled by local authorities over threats against PEGIDA leadership.

Europe has a problem. I don’t have a solution, but I do have a suggestion: before you ask other people to stand by your values, make sure you’re willing to do so.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

Want to help The Fog of Policy grow? Then take a minute and share this piece! Or let me know what you think in the comments section.

Have a question or suggestion for a new piece? Submit it through the Feedback form – and don’t forget to subscribe on the homepage to get posts and features automatically sent to your inbox.

2 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and European Hypocrisy

  1. Hi Sherry! I think that if Charlie Hebdo were published in the US, that the broader public could more legitimately claim to defend the newspaper's right to say offensive things under the auspices of free speech without putting themselves in the position of tacitly defending what the newspaper actually says.

    But that argument is harder to sustain in France because the French are in fact willing to ban offensive speech, but not CH. That's a pretty strong contradiction and I think feeds feelings of grievance. The claim that European Muslims are just being asked to put up with the same things that everyone in Europe is asked to put up with simply isn't true.

  2. So Pedro, does your argument imply that if Charlie Hebdo was published here that it would be legitimately free speech? Still stupid speech, but with all the claims to the right to publish whatever they want?
    Thanks for the clarity of your article.

Leave a Reply