This is an update to the post I finally decided to promote yesterday. Sometimes you know things aren’t good for you, and apparently daring to say that what’s racist is racist is one of them…when people decide that racism is okay. An overstatement? Yes, obviously. The point I set out to make is one that people either got and found uncontroversial, or didn’t get and apparently was objectionable because free speech. I don’t know exactly what to say other than to try to clarify how I understand the objection.
The post I wrote was an attempt to apply ideas from Stanley Fish’s essay “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech” to understanding the tensions that exist over the actions–and responses to those actions–of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical and investigative newspaper targeted in early January by terrorists in response to that publication’s cartoons depicting a variety of subjects: first and foremost the Prophet Muhammad; second, mockery of traditional Islamic values through the Muhammad caricature; and third, a tendency towards racialized, stereotypical presentations in the service of the prior two points, as well as toward “terrorists.” I add scare quotes around the word “terrorist” because, among other angry interlocutors on the Internet, I was accused of not distinguishing between a religion (Islam) and a race (Arab…or maybe North African, depending on context) which are necessarily represented thusly. In any event, for this failure I sincerely apologize: I assumed people had seen the cartoons Charlie Hebdo published that caused such a fuss. Or maybe that they could grasp why portraying “terrorists” as grody bearded dudes in Aladdin costumes might seem racist.
In any event, I apologize; if you can’t see these points, you surely have bigger problems to deal with in this unhappy world than a critic pointing out the failings of your own critical faculties.
Anyway, after writing something I wasn’t sure I wanted to write–and only shared in a way that people would see it when I was again offended by what I really believe is a mean, ugly argument–namely, that someone else should just eat up the shit you throw in their face (without regard to what we might normally see in terms of power relationships within and without a society)–I watched for a long time with what (I like to think) was restraint. Sympathetic thinkers took issue with my noncommittal employ of the term of “problematize,” because it’s noncommittal. Fair enough. I wish I was smart enough to make sense of a world in which people get killed for what I think are stupid reasons. Once you have a solution, let me know and I promise I will promote it without “problematizing” it. Until them, I’ll continue to “wring my hands,” thank you, so as not to take a stupid position.
Which gets me to my point. If there’s a point worth getting to. I realize the piece I published is tl;dr (sorry, that’s your problem; I welcome the pithy Facebook status update that solves our problems). But if I had to summarize the point I was getting at, it’s that when we invoke “free speech” in an event like that which horribly unfolded in Charlie Hebdo‘s offices, it’s done in defense of a concept that just doesn’t exist. Whatever you mean by “free speech” isn’t so. In this case it was caricatures that fundamentally, by their very existence, violated the values (however tightly held) over a billion people on Earth, and second, were executed in a manner that relied on racial caricatures that, even if you’re not Muslim, are nevertheless kinda, maybe (absolutely) racist. Apparently I should have explained how caricatures work.
Point is, having pointed out that yelling “free speech!” shouldn’t actually stop us from talking about what some form of speech meant (treating it as something other than inoffensive, inexpressive noise), I, apparently, am on the side of those who want to limit free speech. Nothing of the sort. I am not. I simply think that we should call something what it is. But if you do so when the specter of “free speech” is threatened by three guys with guns and a whole lot of hate, you apparently must be in favor of the bogeyman of “freedom from speech,” that thing everyone learned from reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in high school (unless it was banned at your high school; meta!).
I have absolutely nothing against Atwood’s novel. Nor against defenses of freedom of speech and expression. But I do have a problem with people deciding that one free speech issue versus another (and this is always how it works) represents an existential threat to the very notion of free expression. I argued, “Charlie Hebdo was at least kinda racist and we can’t just say that the people who were offended by it were being stupid and, like, shouldn’t be offended.” This is pretty normal and I hope uncontroversial. The stuff they published pissed people off, come on. That doesn’t mean I favor them being gunned down, I just admitted it pissed people off and I wasn’t cool with all the ways they did so.
Now they’re martyrs to free speech. So apparently by saying I have a problem with what they said…I’m against free speech? Ah! I’m at “freedom from speech,” the devilish positive spin on censorship that Atwood teaches us is just doublespeak.
My response? “Well, it’s certainly bizarre how once we decide we need to defend free speech, we don’t care what anyone’s saying.”
Magically my opponents have invoked “freedom from speech” from the opposite perspective. Instead of preventing disagreeable notions from being expressed, they simply elect to view all expression as mere noise, without communicative value. One Facebook critic of mine invoked H.L. Mencken, a notable hero of rationalism in the fictional film Inherit the Wind (which I totally don’t reference to question the intelligence of those who lionize him without actually knowing much about him; nope). Mencken once celebrated the “gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe,” so that fellow jauntily free-minded men of his ilk could point out that:
I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it.
Though I wouldn’t want to overstate the case. He was principled enough to be against lynchings. Just “noise.” Or perhaps:
The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.
In the latter case I definitely overstate things; less than decade later, what with Nazis, Mencken’s views moderated. (“It was just noise!”) So clearly I’m a fool for bringing it up! After all, speech doesn’t matter. It’s the magic of the diffusion of social responsibility for horrible things that, provided we learn our lesson (no matter how hard the way), we should be granted grace from our mistaken prior opinions. After all, “never again” is just as easy a slogan to get behind as the old apocryphal Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Insofar as neither actually require you to do much having invoked their mantle.)
Then I get tired of arguing that we shouldn’t stop discussing what constitutes racism just because some individuals I believe produced racist art got killed. Individuals who saw import in offending the religious beliefs of countless (well, depending on how you look at it, billions) others in other to pique those who, we’re now assured, were the “real targets.” I’m not sure what to say. I’ve never had to write so many words arguing for my and others’ right to accuse someone of prejudice. And rather than a proper rejoinder to my initial argument, I find myself offered either racism and Islamophobia…you know, prejudice…or (actually usually “and”) appeals to the abstract notion of free speech, which is apparently so threatened by some crazies shooting up an office that it’s an existential threat to our entire social order. This is apparently the coup de grace that silences my attempt to point out that for more or less the last century, no one in western nations has suppressed criticisms of Islam, while governments have consistently suppressed the voices of racial and ethnic and sexual minorities…indulged gender double-standards in law…
I find it equally bizarre that so many people don’t seem to understand why South Park got away with it. Got away with it? Who didn’t get away with it? Even Charlie Hebdo gets away with it. One of the G8 governments made their post-shooting edition the biggest edition they’d ever run. They lost a dozen staff members in a mass shooting and they still get away with it. I won’t deny it threatens your life to do it, but free speech? It seems pretty okay.
Clearly our freedom of speech faces an existential threat from radical Islamic Arab terrorists.