Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie Hebdo

02/16/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015
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The Copenhagen killings are reviving the Charlie Hebdo experience. The dramatic video, the bloodied office, the manhunt, the hostages, the outrage, the marches, the ubiquitous Je Suis Charlie placards. And then the politicians' pledges, the analysis, the endless commentaries. All right-thinking people lined up in defense of freedom of speech as a cornerstone of liberal democracy. In France, the principles and precepts of their distinctive version of secularism as a political creed and organizing principle for a modern society, laicite, were reaffirmed with ritual fervor. Charlie Hebdo and liberty became synonymous. Few dissented.

Are they really synonymous, though? With the flush of emotion receding, the answer is less obvious than it appeared a month ago. Spontaneous unanimity of opinion risks eliding fine discriminations and discourages skeptical questioning. In this instance, the abstract issue of freedom of expression is conflated with judgments as to the probity of the behavior of Charlie Hebdo's managers and cartoonists. It is both logical and reasonable to consider the two separately. It is worth sketching an approach that makes that distinction.

First, there is the question of censorship in its legal aspect. Many hold the absolutist position that there should be no governmental imposed restriction on what anyone can say or write - however obnoxious it might be in the eyes of some. In the United States, this represents a tight reading of the First Amendment. In most of Western Europe, the principle is qualified by statute or customary practice. Britain's slander and libel laws are sympathetic to plaintiffs. In Germany among other continental countries, there are explicit prohibitions on the promotion of doctrines and persons associated with Nazism. Hate speech or incitment defined in various terms also is subject to legal penalties in a number of places- including France. The more broadly written the law, the wider the discretion accorded authorities in its implementation. Concern about the possible use of discretionary authority leads some to favor the absolutist position.

Second, interpretations of whether either the law or customary practice has been violated are almost never entirely neutral. They are sensitive to historical and political circumstance. Hence, in Europe stricter norms apply to expressions that convey anti-Semitic sentiments than to other groups, religions or topics. In the past, overwhelmingly Catholic countries tended to protect the sensibilities of the Vatican and the Faithful. We would be less than honest if we did not acknowledge that differentiation remains the norm in most of Western Europe - including France and Denmark. This is particularly pronounced in speaking of "opinion" as opposed to formal actions by public authorities.

The Charlie Hebdo episode confirms that proposition. For there is manifestly greater tolerance among the political class and the public generally for cartoons and captions that have Islam and Muslims as their targets than those that might target Judaism and Jews - with Christians somewhere in between. Had Charlie Hebdo published a steady diet of cartoons deeply offensive to Jews, they would not have been accompanied by the cool, laissez-faire attitude that characterized reaction to their "Muslim" caricatures. We should bear in mind, in this regard, that we are not considering a single cartoon as was the case years back with the infamous Danish portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed, but rather several over an extended period of time.

What practical meaning does this portrayal of the situation have? The conclusion to be drawn need not be that more legal restrictions are in order. They are risky, contentious and liable to abuse. Voluntary criticism by public figures, media, intellectuals etc. does seem permissible and appropriate. Who decides what's appropriate? Each person and group in accordance with the principle of free expression. Could this generate heavy pressures on somebody or some journal that may have an inhibiting effect? Yes - but that is in the nature of the democratic game. If you dish it out, you have to learn to take it.

What of self-censorship? Timothy Garton Ash, in a recent New York Review of Books article, warned sternly about the dangers of intimidation. He had in mind mainly the intimidation represented by the threat of violence. The argument pertains as well to other forms of intimidation. His reasoning pointed to the conviction that we consciously should ignore all and any non-legal restrictions so as to affirm the principle of freedom of speech. One could carry this logic a step further to argue that we are honor bound to publish cartoons and other material that crosses the line into the territory of the offensive as felt by Muslims (not quite Ash's stated position) so as to affirm a basic right. In effect, that is what the Je Suis Charlie slogan did.

The alternative would have been to demonstrate under a banner that underscored the principle without associating oneself directly with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Apparently, that idea was a non-starter.

Consequently, the two issues were merged. School children in France were obliged, under the pain of chastisement, to stand at attention in Je Suis Charlie ceremonies that implicitly linked adherence to the Republic's principles of laicite with the offensive cartoons. The refusal of some to do so was then interpreted as a sign of deficient loyalty to France and a lack of solidarity with its community of values. This is quite dubious logic, though - and not very prudent. Let's try to imagine the Jewish children of recent immigrants being required to do obeisance to a journal that published a long series of vulgar lampoons disparaging Judaism.

The stirring of emotions in a thoughtless manner is a dangerous business - whether the stirring is by crude satirists or politicians. Indeed, in the present situation, it might be called "stupid." Of course, stupidity is not a crime. At the same time, the encouragement of stupidity can be very costly.