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Free Speech vs. Responsible Speech: We Need to Talk, Again

02/03/2015 11:01 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

We need to talk -- again -- about how we exercise our basic, elemental, Constitutional right to free speech.

Up front, let's make clear we are not talking about censorship of that most precious of rights, the right to express ourselves freely without punishment. But we are talking about a more responsible exercise of that right, one that considers consequences and motives, one that will ensure we continue enjoying that right.

Forcing the free-speech debate back to the forefront are two related events happening in close succession.

In December, news of a movie comedy (The Interview) about two American doofuses tasked by the CIA to assassinate the leader of North Korea---a high point shows the Dear Leader's head exploding---so incited the ire of the North Korean government that it hacked the computer system of the movie's producer, Sony Pictures, whether to destroy the movie or interfere with distribution, it's not clear. What is clear is that North Korea is a nation with nuclear weapons and a wildly erratic leader. The Obama administration had to respond to North Korea's hacking as a cyber-security breach, by threatening "proportional" payback "at a place and time and manner that we choose."

Really? All this unfunny saber-rattling over a dumber-than-dumb comedy? Trying to defuse the situation, Mr. Obama added, "I think it says something about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie." Maybe so, but then, what does this contretemps say about American notions of comedy, of culture?

More recently, and more lethally, in Paris in January two radicalized French Muslims stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that makes a point of skewering Mohammed the Prophet, and killed five of the paper's cartoonists, along with others. Perceived by the French public as an attack on one of its foundational pillars---the French Enlightenment's achievement of free speech---the public days later filled the streets by the millions with a march reasserting this right, with signs proclaiming "Je suis Charlie" (also here and here). Joining them were Muslims bearing signs proclaiming "Je suis juif," showing solidarity with the four Jewish customers killed in a kosher supermarket in a coordinated attack by another radicalized French Muslim.

One week later, Charlie Hebdo, instead of a "Merci" to the Muslims who came out in solidarity, put out its first post-attack edition with a cover again showing the Prophet Mohammed, albeit with an ostensibly more benign message, "Tous est pardonne"---"All is forgiven"---though who's doing the forgiving is left ambiguous. Given that many Muslims take any depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous at the most or insulting at the least, Muslims across the world are roiled again, with some out in the streets, protesting and threatening death to the infidels.

Similarly, almost ten years ago, there was the furor over the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and its publication of caricatures of Mohammed---most notably, showing a bomb embedded in the Prophet's turban---which led to worldwide riots, and some 250 deaths. Unmoved, the late contrarian Christopher Hitchens scoffed at "the babyish tantrums" of the Islamic world and "this sickly babble about 'respect.'"

Do we see a pattern here? Inciting all three incidents is the blunt instrument of satire, with the same follow-up: free-speech absolutists' insistence on the right to offend (also here).

While satire can be brilliantly and uniquely apt, it can also be the middle-schooler in the house of humor, glorying in its goal to be wicked, to insult and humiliate. As various commentators have noted, when satire "punches up"---at royalty and heads of state, politicians, the aristocracy, and the professions---it can act as a powerful corrective to those in authority when they abuse their power over the citizenry. France produced possibly the greatest such artist, Honoré Daumier, who portrayed the king as Gargantua inhaling the nation's assets (Daumier was jailed six months for his insolence); he also skewered the stupidities of politicians as well as the pretensions of the bourgeoisie and the practitioners of law and medicine.

But serious ethical-moral questions arise when satire "punches down"---at the poor and the oppressed. Insulting and humiliating the helpless is a bully's game, an abuse of responsibility and power ("Can't take a joke, huh?").

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the insult and humiliation are aimed at a once-great civilization, Islam, now on the downside from the West, with millions of its adherents living in misery in banlieues encircling Paris and other cities. Daumier, with his empathy for the poor and the worker (also here), would not likely join in the "fun." Far from amusing, Charlie Hebdo's humor is pornographic and profane, especially regarding Mohammed (Google for particulars). Moreover, this pornographic and profane attack, aimed ostensibly at Islamic terrorists, is also, given satire's blunt edge, felt by ordinary Muslims who hold the Prophet sacred and dear. Also, it has to be asked: How does the paper's depiction of Mohammed with an outsize hooked nose not compare with the vilest caricatures of Jews of the past, now broadly condemned? It must also be asked: How can the French, a thinking people, not think of their not-so-distant past, and present responsibility, to peoples they once dominated as colonial masters?

The paper is quite correct about the grave dangers of radical Islam, but is it not responsible in some part for that radicalization, with its insulting, humiliating "humor"? Charlie Hebdo cannot duck its responsibility by touting itself as a "journal irresponsable." Nothing, of course, justifies their murder.

And, finally, there's this contradiction: Charlie Hebdo, reasserts a surviving staffer, is against all religious extremism---"Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept." With moderate Muslims now asked to speak out more against Islamist extremism, how can the paper continue to get a free pass with its own extremism? At the same time, it must be noted the Arab press can be equally extremist in its caricatures of the Jews and Israel. Offense is given all around. But again, offenders do not deserve murder.

The right to offend: Stepping back and considered more generally, the insistence on the right to offend, to insult and humiliate, has ramifications and repercussions that reach deep and cost dearly. Here are three:

One: It exacerbates conflict among nations. International Relations 101 teaches that conflict among nations, as the bloody historical record shows, very often stems from one nation perceiving it has been "dissed" by another---that "sickly babble about 'respect'" is universal and profound---and taking revenge. See: Germany after World War I, whose humiliation enabled an opportunistic Hitler to seek world domination and start World War II. In this sense, one might regard the international system as one big sandbox, filled with children giving and taking offense. To extend the metaphor, it's a dereliction of responsibility when the big kids---America, France---throw their comparatively bigger buckets of sand in the eyes of the little guys, then insist on their right to do so, rather than their responsibility to maintain peace in the sandbox.

Two: It diverts us from our responsibilities. Insult and humiliation---and our increasingly shrill insistence on our free-speech rights to indulge in other low forms of discourse---create a distraction from our very real, very serious responsibilities. In fact, indulgence can prevent acknowledgement of responsibility.

Case in point: America acknowledging responsibility for torture during the Bush years. Just before the Sony Picture brouhaha, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee released a report of its six-year study that presented, in more gruesome detail than previously reported, the heinous practices used to break detainees suspected of terrorism, practices that became U.S. Government policy. Finally, some of us thought: a reckoning on torture. But then, a "comedy" about two clownish Yanks offing North Korea's leader swamped the airwaves and---poof---momentum gone. One might argue truly weighty issues eventually weigh in, but do they? Neil Postman's book of some decades ago, Amusing Ourselves to Death, seems prophetic. One might also ask: Where were America's artists, putative humanists, when America was torturing other human beings? Answer: exercising their free-speech rights to say irrelevant, neurotic, profane, anti-human things, "breaking bad," defining humanity downward---"What torture?" Are we serious? No.

Three: It leaves us with a depleted culture. Free-speech absolutists' insistence on the right to offend, to say and write offensive and profane things, along with the right to blaspheme, has created an environment, a culture-scape, in which little is held dear or beautiful and almost nothing is sacred. And we, the instigators, are the losers for it, depleted spiritually. Rather than a Golden Age, ours is one of brass, and getting brassier. Moreover, it might be said, fighting for the right to offend can be seen as the frantic overreaction of a culture in trouble, in decline even, as America and France show evidence of being.

To reverse our downward course, we need to get a grip, get responsible. Assert our rights, yes, but also tend to our responsibilities, and in so doing, protect those rights. Would that we emphasized our responsibilities as fervently and energetically as our rights! It's the path not only to maturity but security.

Encouragingly, in the realm of political cartooning, some are rethinking their approach in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The New York Times writes:

"...[A]mid all the 'I Am Charlie' marches and declarations on social media, some in the cartooning world are also debating a delicate question: Were the victims free-speech martyrs, full stop, or provocateurs whose aggressive mockery of Islam sometimes amounted to xenophobia and racism?"

Noting this question unfolds differently in different countries, the Times continues:

"...[T]he conversation could be especially acute in the United States, where sensitivities to racially tinged caricatures may run higher than in places like France, where historically tighter restrictions on speech have given rise to a strong desire to flout the rules."

The Times cites American cartoonists reconsidering "what privilege means, and a feeling that you don't need to insult people, especially downtrodden people, to make your points." Others question Charlie Hebdo's "ugly, racist" covers as "simply cruelty hiding behind the idea of free speech." Joe Sacco, author of graphic novels (Footnotes in Gaza), states that while he decries the murders, "I also come from the position of trying to understand why people are affected by images, and not just say 'Why can't you take a joke?' An image of Muhammad in some compromising position isn't meant as just a joke." Sacco takes aim "at people in power, rather than attacking....people who might feel themselves marginalized or persecuted."

For the rest of us, we already accept curbs on a vast array of rights, enforced by the state, in the name of responsibility to the general welfare. The right to drive a vehicle does not mean we can abuse that right and endanger others by speeding or playing bumper-cars. The right to marry does not mean we can abuse our spouse physically or emotionally. Absolutists, including those for free speech, by definition don't like curbs, but how else can society not only function, but survive? In the area of gun rights, absolutists insist on their untrammeled right to all manner of firearms, without restriction, heedless of the carnage caused.

As to speech, there already stands a long-accepted sanction against yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater. As USA Today writes:

"In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled speech that presents a 'clear and present danger' is not protected by the First Amendment. Crying 'fire' in a quiet, uninhabited place is one thing, the court said. But 'the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.'"

Can it not be said that, given today's dense and volatile world, we do indeed live in a crowded theater? And that there is a "clear and present danger" in heaping verbal fire on the tinder?

Again, none of this is to call for censorship, by the state or any other body. But it is to call for taking personal responsibility for minding our mouths. And it's to argue with free-speech absolutists this point: That those of us taking a more moderate stance would of course, as Voltaire would, fight to the death to defend free speech, including the right to offend---a "regrettable necessity" as Vox's Matt Yglesias puts it. But it is valid to note that defending the right of free speech doesn't mean one cannot object to that right's application or abuse, that embracing a broad strategy doesn't rule out objecting to an operational tactic.

This is also to note that responsible speech is not the appeaser's way out, or the Victorian way, as free-speech absolutists like to accuse. The slain Charlie Hebdo editor's defense of his right to offend---that he'd rather "die standing than live on my knees"---is, no disrespect to the dead intended, absurd. Being responsible is hard, hard work. The reptilian exists in all of us, in responsible people too, but it's our responsibility to subdue that beast---the struggle of civilization and its discontents---and speak and act in ways that, for the greater good, enhance human dignity.

C.J. Jung, the Swiss psychologist, once wrote that in pondering the end of the world, he could not speculate how it would come: through evil or stupidity? Unhappily, at this chaotic moment in history, we have both destructive forces hard at work---the evil of radical extremism and stupid expression unbridled---and not much in the way of counter-forces of equal power pushing back. Calling all grown-ups, calling all grown-ups.....

For other commentary on the free-speech implications of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, see here, here, here, here, and here. For other commentary on Muslim reaction to the attacks, see here, here, here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Her earlier book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," came out in 2009. Also a playwright, she published a volume titled "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."