THE BLOG
01/10/2015 11:51 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2015

To Uphold Freedom of Speech, Go Listen to One You Don't Like

Knowing that the illustrators and writers of Charlie Hebdo died for freedom of expression, it's only natural to want to do your part to support that noble principle. Here is how you can: Read this, an essay in which a Muslim cleric argues freedom of expression isn't important.

I am not suggesting that you read him because he's right, or even worth a lot of thought. I am suggesting you read it precisely because it will likely strike you as wrong, and perhaps outrageously so. I am suggesting you read it -- all the way through, with patience and reflection -- precisely because it will make you angry. That's what makes freedom of expression so much work, even for those of us who are congratulating ourselves on our liberal open-mindedness this week. And that work is what makes freedom of expression so valuable.

Muslims, Anjem Choudary tells us in his OpEd, "do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires." Not all Muslims would agree, but in any event his claim, and similar talk from fundamentalists in other religions, raise a challenge worth answering. When we secular folk reply that we do believe in free expression, can we say why we do?

Narrowly, many believe in such freedom because we do not want to be shot, or flogged, or beaten for expressing our opinions. But this is just self-preservation and personal convenience -- a way of saying that we personally don't wish to pay the high price others have paid for exercising liberty.

More broadly, in many nations, including the U.S. and France, we believe in freedom because we know that it is a part of our identity -- a principle for which our forebears fought and died. And this thought makes us feel good, as we lock arms with others chanting the same slogans and holding aloft the same symbols. But there is a certain irony in a celebration of dissent that involves thousands of people proclaiming that they believe the same thing. We are all here to say "Je suis Charlie!" Our celebration of dissent pleases us because in it there is not one dissenting voice.

The thinkers who forged the right to free expression, and bequeathed it to us, had something more consequential in mind than mere self-preservation or feelings of the warm and fuzzy kind. They believed that people who have the self-discipline and forebearance to live with freedom of speech are better -- as citizens, and as human beings. And therefore their society is better -- more just, more humane and more dedicated to things that have value beyond the here and now.

As John Milton put it in his magnificent defense of free expression, Areopagitica, it is only by putting one's settled beliefs to the test that one can be sure of their value, and improve on their weaknesses. Contemplating the beauty of your store of wisdom, without challenge, is a sure way to make sure that you add nothing new to it. Moreover, he wrote, it is a form of cowardice. Truth must grapple with falsehood in order for us to know which is which, he wrote: "who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

But this encounter does not come naturally to most of us, who prefer to believe that truth is settled, and lives in our living room. After Choudary's piece appeared, many took a break from celebrating freedom to complain that someone else had it: Why, they asked, was he allowed to have his say? And in a major American newspaper at that?

Now, this is not an argument that everyone and everything should be expressed. All democracies have limits on absolute freedom of speech, to which Choudary cunningly alluded. In some democracies, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust, or to preach racism. In all, it is illegal to cry "fire!" in a crowded theater.

And notions of what is beyond the pale will vary. Even Milton, as Stanley Fish enjoyed pointing out, would not extend his ideals of liberty to non-Protestants. Because (and this was Fish's point), people who believe in something by definition cannot believe in everything. "If conviction is not simply a component in an endless liberal debating society," he wrote, "there is always going to be some point at which you are going to say 'Not X; them we burn.' " Milton, Fish wrotes, imagines "a better life for himself and for his fellows. But he knows that such an imagination requires the equally strong imagining of what actions, what agents, will have to be excluded from that better life, or else it won't be any better."

What actions, what agents, have to be excluded from our lives, so completely that we refuse to hear them? Terrorism forces us to confront that question.

And we may imagine that we are confronting it when we populate our Facebook timelines, twitter feeds, tumblrs and all the rest with images that make us feel righteous and justified. We imagine we have engaged when we go to demonstrations wearing the same slogan and holding up the same props as everyone else. We imagine we are doing the right thing when we unfriend and block and zap anyone whose opinion makes our blood boil. But in doing all those things, we are shirking the work that freedom requires.

This is why I think the "Them We Burn" line should be drawn very far. It is why the best way I can think to honor the murdered writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo is by engaging in the hard self-mastering work that free expression requires. Which is not saying whatever the hell I like, nor making sure I am surrounded by ideas that feel right. It is, rather, by listening to ideas I find alien or even repellent -- and so testing my assumptions instead of trusting them; checking my self-righteous emotions rather than exulting in them.

You want to celebrate free expression? Quit holding up a sign and go listen to someone you don't understand.