Charlie Hebdo, free speech, and terrorism

I am certain that everyone is familiar with the horrible events that have unfolded in the last week in Paris, France.  In short: on January 7, 2015 several cartoonists & staff members of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, as well as several police officers, were murdered by militant Islamic terrorists.

I was not intending to write anything about this tragedy.  But there has been , inevitably, a huge amount of debate across mass media, including the internet.  This caused me to finally put my thoughts down.

There is a line of reasoning among certain people that the creators at Charlie Hebdo were somehow at least partially responsible for causing their own murders.  By publishing cartoons & illustrations that were inflammatory towards Islam and that certain members of that faith found sacrilegious & offensive, these cartoonists recklessly created the resentment that led to their deaths.  Or, worse yet, Charlie Hebdo’s creators were far-right racists and Islamophobes, and that they got what was coming to them.

I definitely do not agree with any of this.  I find this type of rationale to be grotesque, the worst example of blaming the victims.  Innocent people were murdered; there is no justification.

Free speech is one of the cornerstones upon which our society was founded.  The free & unrestrained exchange of ideas is the vital lifeblood of freedom.  And that means that, inevitably, there is always going to be something said by somebody that is going to offend somebody else.  As others have observed over the last week, we do not possess the right to not be offended.

I have to be honest: I am not familiar with the work that Charlie Hebdo presented.  From what I understand, they are an extremely irreverent publication that is deliberately provocative.  However, it appears that their harsh satire is directed towards the entire spectrum of religion and politics, and not just at Islam in particular.  I am sure that over the years they offended a great many people from very diverse backgrounds.

Truthfully, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t even sound like my type of humor, and I doubt it is the sort of thing I would read.  But I can understand how their brand of satire would appeal to others.

Yes, it is absolutely true that free speech does not exist in a vacuum; it has consequences.  One cannot simple say whatever they want and then be upset if others vehemently disagree with them.  But there is an appropriate manner in which to do so.

A reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by cartoonist David Pope
A reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by cartoonist David Pope

Obviously certain people were extremely offended by Charlie Hebdo’s commentary on the Islamic faith.  There are a number of reasonable ways in which these individuals could have responded.  They could have boycotted the magazine.  They could have written angry letters to the editors & publisher.  They could have picketed outside the offices of the magazine.  They could have gone on television or created their own publication to air their grievances.  They could have organized like-minded people to march through the streets of Paris in protest.  All of these are rational responses; murder and terrorism are not.

Look, there is plenty that offends me.  I find the contents of Fox News and the New York Post to be racist, sexist, homophobic, inflammatory, partisan distortions of the truth.  Whenever possible I avoid them like the plague.  While I do read the Daily News because it is more aligned to my sensibilities, even then I find certain of the pieces in that newspaper to be insulting or ignorant.  I once commended on Facebook that “You don’t have to be a reactionary douchebag to get a letter to the editor published in the Daily News… but it helps.”

Yes, there are certainly occasions where I have been less than open-minded.  Plenty of times I have viewed or read something that offended me and my immediate reaction was “Why doesn’t that asshole just shut the fuck up?!?”  But you know what?  Hopefully, given a few moments to think things over, I will eventually attempt to consider whether the opinions being presented might actually have any validity to them, to try to understand where that person is coming from.

Not once have I gone out and shot anybody whose opinion I disagreed with.

It is not known if the 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Whether he did or not, he certainly believed in those sentiments.  However, in his 1763 book Treatise on Tolerance he wrote “The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.”

Voltaire’s words are certainly as applicable today as they were 252 years ago.  Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are difficult; they require us to allow others to express beliefs that we may find abhorrent, and to respond in a rational manner.  But without that we become willfully ignorant creatures who violently lash out at all who would differ with us.  Any kind of free & civilized society cannot exist under such circumstances.

Homophobic chicken

The recent controversy surrounding fast food chain Chick-fil-A has raised some interesting First Amendment issues.  Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy is a devout Southern Baptist.  The company has espoused many positions that fall within a strict, traditional interpretation of the Bible.  These include very strong opposition to homosexuality and same sex marriages.  This stance has made headlines within the last couple of months.  In regards to the issue, Cathy announced “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.  We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

In response, a number of politicians have come out in opposition to Chick-fil-A.  Among them was Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who declared “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population.”  Also weighing in was Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stated “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values. They disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents.”  Both Menino and Emanuel strongly urged Chick-fil-A to back out of their plans to open restaurants in their cities, and even contemplated utilizing zoning regulations to block the company.

This controversy has also arisen here in New York City.  Council speaker Christine Quinn, a strong advocate of gay rights, started an online petition to ban Chick-fil-A in the Five Boroughs.  On the other hand, Mayor Mike Bloomberg took an opposing stance, saying that “You really don’t want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit.”

Looking at all this, my first reaction was, admittedly, to jump on the bandwagon with those calling for a ban on Chick-fil-A.  I completely disagree with their opposition to same sex marriage, which they have backed up by donating millions of dollars to ultra-conservative political groups.  I think that they are a bunch of reactionary bigots, and I would be happy to see them shut down.

But, on second thought, giving it further consideration, I realized that would be completely against the spirit of free speech in this country, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.  I seem to recall an expression along the lines that the First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect the speech you agree with, but rather the speech you disagree with.  And Chic-fil-A’s stance on gay marriage would definitely be a case of that.  As disgusting as I find Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A’s positions on homosexuality, they have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to express those views without fear of government censorship.  I feel it would be morally wrong, as well as very un-Constitutional, for the government to block Chick-fil-A from setting up shop due to their views.

(Yeah, believe it or not, I’m actually in agreeing with that know-it-all windbag Bloomberg here.  Between this and his push for stronger gun control, that now makes two positions I actually see eye-to-eye with the Mayor on.  Well, as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.)

Besides, if Chick-fil-A was prevented from opening new stores by mayors or city councils that support gay rights, it would set a horrible precedent.  If that was allowed then, conversely, local politicians who were opposed to homosexuality could then ban businesses that practiced pro-gay policies.

So, yes, I say Chick-fil-A should be allowed to open in New York, Boston, and Chicago.  They must be allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights.  But, at the same time, I strongly encourage everyone who disagrees with Chick-fil-A to exercise their right to free speech.  Speak out against Dan Cathy’s bigotry, and boycott the hell out of that homophobic fast food chain.  That’s definitely what I intend to do.