Sometimes, the world feels as though it would be better off if everyone went back to kindergarten. At least when I attended that grade, the teachers made us learn a mantra that has stuck with me ever since — Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That instruction was meant to keep the children from resorting to violence over every little criticism or humiliation and to toughen us up for the life ahead of us.
A few decades later (more than I’d care to admit), that lesson has been lost, in a number of ways. In the West, we have declined from robust and honest debate into an ever-tightening straitjacket of political correctness. That movement has collapsed the use of language by stigmatizing legitimate constructs in politics and culture.
On college campuses, which should serve as the hothouses for debate and independent thought, free speech often gets limited to demarcated “zones.” Our national debate has been plagued by demands for “trigger warnings” on certain topics lest a stray idea or image cause undue stress, and even the most innocent of colloquies can cause one to be branded a “micro-aggressor.”
Unfortunately, this leaves us with a truncated vocabulary and substantial timidity when difficult issues arise. After flashpoints like Ferguson and the Eric Garner death, Americans keep promising themselves a “national conversation” on race, only to have it dominated by the angriest members on all sides leaving reasonable people afraid of giving offense rather than speaking their minds.
“Conversations” inevitably become lectures from those who have the largest chips on their shoulders, and anyone offering dissent becomes instantly delegitimized. This is how the understandable anger over Garner’s death, caught on videotape during his arrest, turns into absurd, performance-art protests during Sunday brunches in a few urban centers, rather than into action that unites communities for more responsible policing – and perhaps the reduction of intrusive laws that would prevent the necessity for so much police intervention, as with Garner.
The growth of political correctness, however, pales in comparison to the horrors seen in Paris yesterday. The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had produced caustic, satirical commentary for years on a wide range of topics. Its cartoonists had skewered political leaders, cultural figures, and religion ever since its relaunch in 1992. Despite its ecumenical approach to the latter subject – Christianity and Judaism came in for blasphemous criticism – their attacks on Islam drew threats for years, as well as a lawsuit in 2006 (later dismissed).
After an issue in November 2011 purported to be guest-edited by Mohammed himself, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were destroyed in a firebomb attack. Almost a year later, the magazine ran another satire of Mohammed, drawing criticism from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, as well as the White House. France had to tighten security as a result of threats after the publication.
“A drawing never killed anyone,” Editor in Chief Stéphane Charbonnier responded. “When you start saying that you can’t create such drawings, then the same thing will soon apply to other, more harmless representations.”
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Unfortunately for “Charb,” extremists don’t know that common wisdom. Using children as hostages, three Muslim gunmen forced their way into Charlie Hebdo’s offices on Wednesday, executing targeted members of the staff, including Charbonnier and two police officers. According to witnesses, they rejoiced for having “avenged the Prophet.” The attack left at least 12 people dead, making it one of the worst terrorist attacks in Europe in several years.
The deaths caused an outpouring of condemnations for the attacks – and oddly, a few for the victims. Columnist Tony Barber wrote in the Financial Times that Charlie Hebdo had “a long record of mocking, baiting, and needling French Muslims.” Barber scolded that “editorial foolishness [had] prevailed … Common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.” (The magazine’s editors took a much different view.)
The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue declared himself aligned with Muslims angered over being intentionally insulted by the magazine while helpfully prefacing his remarks by opposing murder over personal insults. “Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter,” he wrote. “It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” Many others took to social media to declare that the biggest threat in the wake of this massacre was “Islamophobia” in reactions to the shooting.
Charlie Hebdo is not above criticism, certainly, but this is a strange moment to deliver it. The issue at hand stopped being a matter of etiquette and taste when the first bullets flew, and instead became a moment to stand for free expression. It’s also possible to overdo criticism and push it into hate speech. But twelve people dead in the streets of Paris make it clear that commentary is not the real threat. In fact, this should make it clear that commentary is the target.
Perhaps we have grown too accustomed to free speech to appreciate it. Some among us are too eager to push for silence in exchange for a modicum of ease and peace. One does not need to approve of Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures to understand that its editors and contributors had every right to publish them – and that its critics had every right to scold them over its content — without either having to be concerned over whether it would cost them their lives. The only way one can conclude that Charb played “a role … in his own tragic death” is to accept that the price of staying alive is to refrain from criticism, especially of Islam and its extreme adherents.
It took centuries for Western values to develop to the point where we could enjoy and exercise our right to speak out, dissent, criticize, and even be wildly wrong without that choice becoming a life or death matter. Those values are under attack from both within and without, as this episode clearly demonstrates. If this does not serve as a wake-up call to those threats, one may never exist.
Charb understood the risks, and the stakes. “I have neither a wife nor children, not even a dog. But I’m not going to hide,” he told Der Spiegel in 2012 after the criticism of Fabius and the US government, preferring to “die standing than live on my knees.” In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we should stand for free speech and free expression. Mere words will never break our bones, but acquiescence to those who wish to silence criticism will eventually enslave us.
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