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Michael Bettencourt

Je Suis Charlie: Why?

The massacre shocked, as all massacres should, no matter where they occur — though they shock in different ways depending on the degree of family one feels for the victims: dead French cartoonists garnered more sympathy than the swath of waste laid down by Boko Haram in Nigeria at the same moment, and therein lies a tale, as they say.


But these hypocrisies are just fish in a barrel: not interested.  I was more interested in how people defended free speech, especially what some called "the right to blaspheme," that insult, not civility, is the foundation of one's right to proclaim freely.  (But then there is the case of Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala in France — but just more fish in the hypocrisy barrel.)


So, according to the "blaspheme" meme, if a society wants to label itself "liberal" and "modern" and "democratic" and "a protector of freedom," then its citizens must not only swallow a high degree of insult to prove their liberal bona fides, especially insults to dear and fervent beliefs, but also not retaliate against it.  Oh, one can retaliate in words or gestures or massive protest marches, but one cannot physically attack the insulters, one cannot make them "pay a price."


In this scenario, the society extends an insulation to the insulters that is not extended to the insultees.  The insultees, however, are expected to honor this protection as a proof that they are members in good standing of the liberal regime and will follow Louis Brandeis' maxim of "the remedy to be applied [to bad speech] is more speech, not enforced silence."


But clearly not everyone chooses to play this liberal/democratic charade and instead choose to break the rules.  This is what happened at Charlie Hebdo.


To me, the writers at Charlie Hebdo were poseurs, if not hypocrites (just as with Jyllands-Posten in 2005 with their defamatory cartoons of Mohammed).  They wanted the glory and profit of being provocateurs but did not want to take responsibility for any blowback. 


But isn't provoking blowback the whole point of the insult?  If you don't get blowback, then why perform the insult?  And while in a liberal regime the blowback is supposed to be choreographed by the "remedy of more speech" so that no one dies, who says anyone gets to define what constitutes the "right" blowback?


In a skewed way, the massacre honored the insulters and their right to blaspheme: something they did triggered an actual effect in the actual world and was not just mouth-music and posing done on a periodic basis for a paying audience.  The exercise of the right had consequence: what more can any artist hope for?


One hopes that the consequence will be less than suffering and death, but death should not be ruled out as a validation of the freedom and the proper outcome of an inflammatory action. 


But let's not go to that length: murdering the writers is understandable, but massacre is not really a sustainable counter-balance of the right to blaspheme.  But neither is the "remedy of more speech" a useful counter-balance, especially for the voiceless in a society who have no megaphone for their "more speech."


Perhaps some speech should be penalized (the "yelling 'fire!' in a crowded theatre when there is no fire" approach). 


Perhaps we should de-exalt free speech principles and instead have massive marches in support of non-speech principles (placards like "sometimes it's best just to shut up" or "if you can't say something good, don't say anything at all"). 


Perhaps, in the broader view, we denizens of the liberal democracy need to reëvaluate the rights-based underpinnings of our social arrangements, since rights are arid and pallid next to clan and tribe and family and faith.


But let's not exalt the insulters and sanctify their extinction nor expect the insulted to accept the insults with a charm and grace the insulters decline to exhibit.  What happened at Charlie Hebdo was barbaric on both sides.  At the very least, the disaster should force us to display less sanctimony and self-satisfaction and instead examine how we can expand free speech from the crimped "right to blaspheme" to a more civilizing effort to share ideas and the lives of the people who speak them.

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March 2015

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |





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