The free speech consensus challenge

The free speech consensus challenge

by digby

This complicates matters:
Anti-semitic French comedian Dieudonné was arrested after he seemingly compared himself to the terrorist who murdered four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris last week.

Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala, 48, who was being held for questioning at a Paris police station, could face possible charges of "apology for terrorism".

Paris state prosecutors opened a formal investigation on Monday night into remarks made by the comedian on his Facebook page after the vast "Republican march" in Paris on Sunday.

After mocking the media superlatives about the march, the comedian declared: "As for me, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly".

Amedy Coulibaly was the man who took hostages and killed four people at the Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris last Friday before being killed by police.

Dieudonné’s comments generated a wave of fury on the internet – including many angry reactions from his own fans on his Facebook page. His statement was withdrawn after less than an hour.

The French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, called the comment "abject" and asked his officials to investigate whether the comedian should be prosecuted for breaching a French law which forbids "apology for" or encouragement of terrorism.

In fact, over 50 people have been arrested in France on this charge since the killings.

Dieudonné is a disgusting piece of anti-Semitic work, whose work has been banned before. It's explained this way:
Jewish leaders say Dieudonné is a symptom of a larger problem. Here and across the region, they are talking of the rise of a “new anti-Semitism” based on the convergence of four main factors. They cite classic scapegoating amid hard economic times, the growing strength of far-right nationalists, a deteriorating relationship between black Europeans and Jews, and, importantly, increasing tensions with Europe’s surging Muslim population.
This is how his attorney defended his work:
Dieudonné was unavailable for comment, but his attorney, Sanjay Mirabeau, said the comedian was simply speaking truth to power.

“If the Portuguese were protected in France and had big influence, then he would protest the Portuguese,” Mirabeau said. “But as it is, there are others” who fit that description.
I'm going to guess that many of the people who have been so defiant in the case the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, saying that despite their profane nature one must righteously defend the "practice" rather than simply affirm the magazine's right to publish, are not going to be wearing "Je Suis Dieudonné" t-shirts any time soon. Certainly, from what I'm seeing on twitter this morning, there are many people making the point that "this is completely different".

But from the young Muslim perspective, Jews are the powerful ones, both in France and in the Middle East. I think most of us in the West understand the horrifying historical resonance of all that, but that's probably not something marginalized young people are going to find very compelling. To them, that's ancient history and all they see is what's in front of them.

The horror of the killings transcends this academic debate and takes it into a different realm. Violence isn't speech. But in the end, I come back to where I was in the beginning, which is that free speech must be inviolate and that state censorship must be banned in all cases. However, social sanction and vigorous debate on all sides must also be defended. I think Robert Wright was on to something:
[W]hy not take the model that has worked in America and apply it globally? Namely: Yes, you are legally free to publish just about anything, but if you publish things that gratuitously offend ethnic or religious groups, you will earn the scorn of enlightened people everywhere. With freedom comes responsibility.

Of course, it's a two-way street. As Westerners try to attune themselves to the sensitivities of Muslims, Muslims need to respect the sensitivities of, for example, Jews. But it's going to be hard for Westerners to sell Muslims on this symmetrical principle while flagrantly violating it themselves. That Danish newspaper editor, along with his American defenders, is complicating the fight against anti-Semitism.

Some Westerners say there's no symmetry here — that cartoons about the Holocaust are more offensive than cartoons about Muhammad. And, indeed, to us secularists it may seem clear that joking about the murder of millions of people is worse than mocking a God whose existence is disputed.

BUT one key to the American formula for peaceful coexistence is to avoid such arguments — to let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo isn't too onerous. We ask only that the offended group in turn respect the verdicts of other groups about what they find most offensive. Obviously, anti-Semitic and other hateful cartoons won't be eliminated overnight. (In the age of the Internet, no form of hate speech will be eliminated, period; the argument is about what appears in mainstream outlets that are granted legitimacy by nations and peoples.)
Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious. Some might call this dishonest, and maybe it is, but it also holds moral truth: until you've walked in the shoes of other people, you can't really grasp their frustrations and resentments, and you can't really know what would and wouldn't offend you if you were part of their crowd.
The Danish editor's confusion was to conflate censorship and self-censorship. Not only are they not the same thing — the latter is what allows us to live in a spectacularly diverse society without the former; to keep censorship out of the legal realm, we practice it in the moral realm. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but worse things are imaginable.
And it's not as if Americans have perfectly cracked this one, is it? Each day we learn about ways that we are consciously and unconsciously expressing intolerant, insulting viewpoints. And sometimes those insulting viewpoints are important. This is an ever-evolving conversation. But there's no doubt that we've progressed. In the course of my lifetime, the way we speak to each each other and about each other, our consciousness of the differences between ignorant bigotry and legitimate debate, has improved dramatically. And that happened without the state stepping in. We don't do everything right here by any means, but I'd suggest that the founders had the right idea about this one.

None of this says that defiant, irreverent, profane, obscene speech on all sides will, or should, disappear. In fact, one hopes that it doesn't because it can represent the cutting edge of change. Taking the starch out of ossified institutions, including religion, is a necessary part of progress. But everyone has a role to play in how progress unfolds and Wright's point is that social consensus for self-restraint against gratuitous insults is what makes us all able to rub along together in a pluralistic society. For the most part we all agree to do this every day in real life. Very few of us just blurt out every thought that comes into our heads at work. We don't do it with strangers. We observe a very obvious norm that insulting people to their faces because of their race or their religion is a needlessly provocative act. In fact, it's only on the internet where we tend to let our freak flags fly. So this really isn't all that hard to fathom.

There's a simple philosophy underlying all this that we can all adopt. It crosses all social traditions, religions and beliefs. It's called the Golden Rule: treat others as you would have them treat you. If everyone would sign on to that one, the world would be a much better place.

Update: This is a very interesting philosophical take on the matter: Rival Sanctities.

Update II: On twitter @jlassen makes the important point that the US is hardly innocent in the criminalizing of speech issue and he's right. For instance:

Over the past several years, the Justice Department has increasingly attempted to criminalize what is clearly protected political speech by prosecuting numerous individuals (Muslims, needless to say) for disseminating political views the government dislikes or considers threatening. The latest episode emerged on Friday, when the FBI announced the arrest and indictment of Jubair Ahmad, a 24-year-old Pakistani legal resident living in Virginia, charged with “providing material support” to a designated Terrorist organization (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT)).

What is the “material support” he allegedly gave? He produced and uploaded a 5-minute video to YouTube featuring photographs of U.S. abuses in Abu Ghraib, video of armored trucks exploding after being hit by IEDs, prayer messages about “jihad” from LeT’s leader, and — according to the FBI’s Affidavit — “a number of terrorist logos.” That, in turn, led the FBI agent who signed the affidavit to assert that ”based on [his] training and experience, it is evident that the video . . . is designed as propaganda to develop support for LeT and to recruit jihadists to LeT.” The FBI also claims Ahmad spoke with the son of an LeT leader about the contents of the video and had attended an LeT camp when he was a teenager in Pakistan. For the act of uploading that single YouTube video (and for denying that he did so when asked by the FBI agents who came to his home to interrogate him), he faces 23 years in prison.

I forgot to never get too self-righteous about the American superiority in anything. Our actions rarely match up to our ideals.