THE BLOG
01/14/2015 12:09 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

Charlie and the Ducks

Cartoons and paté share a potential to enrage. Aside from their French Connection, the link between last week's horrific attack on the office of a Parisian satire magazine and the judicial overturning of California's two-year old ban on selling foie gras -- the specially fattened liver of a force-fed duck or goose -- might seem absurdly tenuous. Yet, both raise important questions about the toleration of offense in democratic society. Occurring the same day, their odd confluence places the two in an impromptu dialogue.

Admittedly, profound differences exist between serving a comestible and printing a cartoon, and there are stark disparities between Wednesday's events. Yet, in both cases, the question emerges as to what a free society should do when an act is tolerated by most, but despised by some. We must condemn murders and death threats aimed at those who act lawfully. Still, in civil society where should one draw the line between what you tolerate and what I see as profoundly immoral?

Intended (satire) or not (liver), some find their mere presence intensely upsetting. Some find images of the Prophet Mohammed to be anti-Islam sacrilege, while others, equally devout in their own fashion, consider foie gras as "the Abu Ghraib of poultry dishes." Duck liver is part of Gallic culinary patrimony, but many in the West consider the production of the delicacy to be unbearably cruel, demanding response. Eventually California heeded these wishes, forcing foie gras off the menus of gastronomic temples such as Chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry, which organized a luxurious au revoir dinner. What disgusts often startles those who do not share a worldview.

Unlike the more decorous century-old French satiric newspaper, Le Canard Enchâiné, editors at Charlie Hebdo took pride in their ability to incite and inflame, ignoring the prior warnings of French officials. While their cartoons provoked part of the French Muslim community to fury and a tiny band of extremists to murder, the low-circulation magazine mostly provoked yawns among most Parisians. As satirist George S. Kauffman famously commented about mockery's impotence, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." Averting one's eyes from those images that are forced on us seemed impossible for some radicals. When culture is universal, it may provoke sectarian discord. Perhaps we should be grateful that in our hypersensitive age, it is increasingly possible to live inside a bubble; the Parisian newsstand culture challenges thorny eyes to burst the bubble.

Unlike freedom of the press, a core value of liberal Western democracy, we have not reached a firm belief in culinary freedom, an absence that legitimates animal rights activists to exhort legislatures and to target restaurants for a practice they believe is barbaric slaughter. Neither cartoons nor hors d'oeuvres mere ideas; both are material practices. They are in your face. Just as political and religious attitudes are wildly diffuse, so are attitudes towards food.

The politics of foie gras -- an ongoing interplay of social movements, gourmet politics, and state regulation -- is an instance of what sociologist Michaela DeSoucey calls 'gastropolitics.' Gastropolitics can be intense and divisive, as in debates over shark fin, veal, or, in France, ortolan, a tiny songbird beloved by President François Mitterrand and banned from the table by the French government in 1999 to the dismay of gourmets. In the United States, foie gras politics has been passionate for over a decade. The Chicago city council banned the delicacy in 2006 before changing their mind two years later, after being savagely satirized in newspapers. The California legislature banned foie gras in 2004, but waited almost eight years to place the ban in effect. Last Wednesday a federal district judge overturned the ban on technical grounds, claiming that it unconstitutionally violated the Poultry Products Inspection Act. No matter the legal reasoning, the response to offensiveness goes far deeper than the question of whether government can regulate food production. Outrage demands response. Restaurateurs around the country who have chosen to serve the fat liver have received death threats and, in some cases, have had their establishments vandalized. Yet, many diners and chefs resent that their freedom to choose what to serve and what to consume are being trampled in the name of a morality that they personally reject. In this sense, the issues in the two cases are joined.

To permit acts to be legal does not require them. Good judgment means taking into account the reactions of neighbors and fellow citizens. It also means an ongoing conversation. Yet we know that acts or threats of violence can push partisans ever further away from a shared commitment to civic culture. I believe that foie gras can be a legitimate culinary choice and that satire should be valued. This does not mean that we should plaster offensive images on the front cover or we should sell offensive food in the town square. Private places are not public spaces, and orderly, if determined, demonstrations are certainly permissible in front of magazine offices and restaurants.

Still, governments must protect the right to disagree. While we should not ban culinary arts or journalistic practices, good neighbors properly take the sensitivities of others into account, while their opponents must recognize these preferences. What is unrecognized is the basic social fact that both disputes -- and most disputes -- must be mediated by a commitment to healthy civic relationships. Any adequate way of responding must be sensitive to that fact. Neither violence on one side or heavy-handed law on the other can bring us towards good ethics or good policies, but an attunement to "neighborliness" that characterizes inter-group relations provides a piece of the answer. You may be Charlie or Chef Keller, but you must respect my right not to be.

Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University and author of Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work. He has written extensively on culinary politics.