Judah Grunstein discusses how France’s conception of “free speech” differs from the more robust American version:
Both France and America make the sanctity of free speech a core principle. But at various times over the past 14 years that I have lived here in France, I have been called on by my American friends to “translate” just what the French mean by “free speech.” In particular, they have been perplexed by the willingness to place limits on speech and, relatedly, religious expression here. This first became visible in the context of the law against wearing veils in public schools and government buildings. More recently, it arose when the government banned the one-man show of the ostensible comic Dieudonné, due to offensive jokes about the Holocaust and gas chambers.
Put simply, in France, racist and anti-Semitic speech, as well as historical revisionism regarding the Holocaust, is illegal, as is all speech that can be considered an incitement to hate. That is something that very few Americans understand—or approve of.
Jonathan Laurence notes a crucial caveat to France’s hate-speech protections: they’re not extended to Muslims:
The last lawsuit to be filed against Charlie Hebdo in 2014 was declared ineligible only because Islam doesn’t qualify for the special legal regime that criminalizes blasphemy against Christianity and Judaism in the Alsace region. And the British Muslims in 1989 wanted authorities to invoke British blaspehemy laws, not the shar’ia, to sanction Salman Rushdie’s novel – but there too Islam did not qualify for protection.
Greenwald calls out hypocrisy among those defending Charlie Hebdo on the basis of free speech, and passes along some cartoons – of which the one above is the least offensive – that he suspects we would not be so quick to defend:
[I]t’s the opposite of surprising to see large numbers of westerners celebrating anti-Muslim cartoons – not on free speech grounds but due to approval of the content. Defending free speech is always easy when you like the content of the ideas being targeted, or aren’t part of (or actively dislike) the group being maligned.
Indeed, it is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights. In fact, Douthat, Chait and Yglesias all took pains to expressly note that they were only calling for publication of such offensive ideas in the limited case where violence is threatened or perpetrated in response (by which they meant in practice, so far as I can tell: anti-Islam speech).
The Dish, of course, is an equal opportunity republisher of trash, as long as it’s relevant and newsworthy. In a sharp post, Sullum argues that France’s hate speech laws indirectly enabled Wednesday’s violence:
I am not saying yesterday’s massacre can be blamed on France’s hate speech laws. Although at least two of the perpetrators were born and raised in France, there is no evidence that they cared about the content of these statutes or that they needed any additional justification beyond their own understanding of Islam. But it is hypocritical and reckless for a government that claims to respect freedom of the press to criminalize images and words based on their emotional impact. Although such laws are defended in the name of diversity and tolerance, it is the opposite of enlightened to invite legal complaints aimed at suppressing offensive messages.
Instead of facilitating censorship by the sensitive, a government truly committed to open debate and freedom of speech would make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that offending Muslims (or any other religious group) is not a crime. Sacrilege may upset people, but it does not violate their rights. By abandoning that distinction, avowed defenders of Enlightenment values capitulate to the forces of darkness.
On the other hand, as Luke O’Neil notes, there’s plenty of free speech hypocrisy to be found right here in the USA:
[T]he self-professed most patriotic citizens in this country harp on our military’s presence in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, insisting that, if not for these brave soldiers, the very foundation of our culture—our speech freedoms—would collapse overnight. Yet those who question the unwavering justness of any action by the American military are often invited to shut their mouths, or given directions to the nearest port of exit. It wasn’t that long ago that entertainers like the Dixie Chicks were being roundly denounced and taken off the air for having the temerity to question our country’s wars.
Nick Gillespie is sad to say that he “will not be surprised if the Charlie Hebdo massacre has the effect of increasing support for hate-speech laws in the United States “:
Many Americans who don’t particularly care about freedom of speech may look on the carnage and conclude it makes sense to avoid such scenes by stifling expression. Social Justice Warrior types will take another long look at Jeremy Waldron’s 2012 book, The Harm in Hate Speech, and gussy up their interest in controlling thought and social interactions with philosophical language and social-scientific “rigor.” Conservatives, sniffing out a possible way to screw liberals and libertarians, may rediscover The Weekly Standard’s case for censorship and decide, hell, it makes a lot of sense. Aren’t Christians the folks who are picked on in America and treated unfairly by the media and intellectuals? It’s always “Piss Christ” and never “Piss Mohammed,” right?
Which makes it more important not simply to show solidarity with the dead and wounded in France but to rehearse the arguments for unfettered trade in ideas and speech.
Update from a reader, who remarks on the cartoon seen at the top of the post, created by the anti-Semitic Carlos LaTuff:
This is a completely false equivalency, and really gets to the heart of the cultural gap at play. To secularists like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, Mohammed is a man like any other, he is no prophet, he is aggrandized by a religion, and is therefore a legitimate target of satire, just like the the Pope, or Jesus, or even the Dalai Lama if one is so inclined. The Holocaust was systematic genocide based on religion/ethnicity. I’m not saying that jokes against the Holocaust should be off limits, there should be no limits.
A better choice would be a “Cartoons of Jesus, or Moses, or John the Baptist” in the place of the “Cartoons of Holocaust.” (If you did, you would be as likely to find the Westerner laughing at both. Unless it is Bill Donahue, who is incapable of laughter.) You simply cannot equate the murder of millions to making fun of a religious figure. One is a group of real human beings. The other is an idealized version of a person who claimed God spoke to him in a cave.
The reason for drawing Mohammed is less about a specific set of religious beliefs, it is about, (forgive me), forbidden fruit. Don’t tell me not to take a taste of that apple, or draw that picture. There is something wonderfully defiant in the human spirit when told we cannot have, or do something. I’m grateful to the cartoonists who were killed for having that spirit, and expressing it.