18 January 2015

Missing the point on Charlie Hebdo

 A few days ago in the New York Times, David Brooks announced his position very clearly: I am not Charlie Hebdo. I'm responding to his Op-Ed because:
  • similar positions are quite common in the wake of the Paris attack, but at least here
  • the argument is reasoned, carefully presented and respectful of the victims and
  • it is published in a very respected, mainstream journal.
Still, I believe it manages to get the "I am Charlie" response completely wrong.
Brooks makes two points. I will not discuss the first one, that some people are hypocrites for supporting Charlie Hebdo but not other similar causes, since I do not care much about what "some people do".
The second one is far more interesting, and I'll summarize it as:

I do not identify with the victims, because their moral and esthetical standards are below mine.

This bothers me for two reasons:


It is of course perfectly OK not to rally to this cause but the argument given is specious: those who joined the "I am Charlie" movement did not do it because of appreciation for the high quality of the journalism and for the artistic level of the drawings. They did it because people suffered and because their suffering was a symbol for something even deeper than the current tragedy, in the same way that many responded to 9/11 by "We are all americans".

Social uses of provocation

It has been said before, and it is especially true now: there is no point in only protecting speech that nobody objects to. Those holding offensive opinions may well make us uncomfortable, but at the same time they help push the borders of public discourse (or at least keep them from closing in on us). A society where everyone refrains from hurting everybody else's feelings is a poor one, and those who voluntarily give up their freedom of speech are in danger of also losing other freedoms (voluntarily or not).

Nobody expected the New York Times to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and, sure enough, they did not do it, just as they did not publish the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in 2006. Which is again understandable, since they are not a provocative newspaper. But provocation and irreverence do have their uses.

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