by Judith Curry
In response to the tragic shootings at the headquarters of satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there have been a number of provocative essays on freedom of speech.
I have discussed the issue in a previous post In defense of free speech, but the recent events have compelled me to write a post on the broader issues raised by Charlie. Below are excerpts from articles on the topic that have resonated with me or that I otherwise found provocative.
From The Conversation:
While this attack and others like this shock the world, it is governments, as well as the media itself on occasion, that have been at the vanguard of banning free expression and regulating ideas in recent years.
Indeed, it is our confusion over such matters that have acted as a green light to others to take action.
Rather than living in fear, we must stand robustly against anyone who would stifle freedom of expression – be they governments, other authoritative bodies including universities, the media or a handful of self-appointed and readily-offended fools.
From Paper Bird:
For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”
There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire?
It’s true, as Salman Rushdie says, that “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” You should not get to invoke the law to censor or shut down speech just because it insults you or strikes at your pet convictions.
I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do.
We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.
To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killings. I mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.
From The Daily Beast:
Charlie Hebdo weren’t asking to be shot. They were asking for a reaction, though, and for half a century now they’ve been surviving pretty much on the notoriety of constantly trying to provoke a reaction. And let’s be real: pushing buttons, by itself, doesn’t make your work more virtuous. Pissing people off is just pissing people off.
Personally, I can’t just let that slide. You see, I’m from the Internet. Things move pretty fast here compared to the “old media” world that Charlie Hebdo occupied, and I’ve already seen what happens when you get a culture that, rather than asking to what end we defend free speech, valorizes free speech for its own sake and thus perversely values speech more the more pointlessly offensive it is—because only then can you prove how devoted you are to freedom by defending it.
David Brooks in the NYTimes:
The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.
So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.
Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in. We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.
But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low.
In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.
From The Daily Beast:
The simple, awful truth is that free speech has never been particularly popular in America.
Today’s threats to free speech are more likely to come from “social justice warriors” on the left who say they are defending the feelings of those deemed to be crushed under the weight of supposedly systemic racism and sexism.
In fact, hate-speech laws may even become a reality. An October 2014 Economist/YouGov poll found roughly equal amounts of Americans supporting and opposing “a law that would make it a crime for people to make comments that advocate genocide or hatred against an identifiable group based on such things as their race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.” Thirty-six percent were in favor and 38 percent were opposed. Among Democrats, 51 percent supported such laws.
Those are troubling numbers, for unfettered speech is not incidental to a flourishing society. It’s the foundation upon which everything—from science to religion to community to politics—is built. We need to recover and grow the idea that the proper answer to bad speech is more and better speech. Or, as good, to ignore that which bothers and insults you. Tend to your own garden, to quote the great sage of free speech, Voltaire, and invite people to follow your example.
Of particular concern to me is what is going on in the universities.
From The Spectator:
Free speech is so last century. Today’s students want the ‘right to be comfortable’
Student unions’ ‘no platform’ policy is expanding to cover pretty much anyone whose views don’t fit prevailing groupthink
Have you met the Stepford students? They’re everywhere. On campuses across the land. Sitting stony-eyed in lecture halls or surreptitiously policing beer-fuelled banter in the uni bar. They look like students, dress like students, smell like students. But their student brains have been replaced by brains bereft of critical faculties and programmed to conform.
If your go-to image of a student is someone who’s free-spirited and open-minded, who loves having a pop at orthodoxies, then you urgently need to update your mind’s picture bank. Students are now pretty much the opposite of that. It’s hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have. From freewheelin’ to ban-happy, from askers of awkward questions to suppressors of offensive speech, in the space of a generation. In each case, it wasn’t the fact the students disagreed with me that I found alarming — disagreement is great! — it was that they were so plainly shocked that I could have uttered such things, that I had failed to conform to what they assume to be right, that I had sought to contaminate their campuses and their fragile grey matter with offensive ideas.
There is one beacon of light: my alma mater The University of Chicago – Report of the Commission on Freedom of Expression. Excerpts:
“Debate may not be suppressed because ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”
“It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from opinions they find offensive.”
At Georgia Tech, we are not one of the universities that enforces political correctness, but I have to say that the ‘Stepford student’ did resonate. Georgia Tech’s students are very bright and motivated, but seem generally lacking in understanding of social and political contexts. The upper administration seems cognizant of this issue – I hope to see some changes in this regard.
While I was at the University of Chicago (late 70’s to early 80’s), discussions of the ‘big issues’ was commonplace and ‘free spirited’ and ‘open minded’ ruled. I hope that the University of Chicago has been able to maintain this among their students.
Anyone defending the satirists at Charlie should have a tough time defending Michael Mann in his legal war against the satirical writings of Mark Steyn and Rand Simberg. It will be interesting to see if Charlie and the defense of satirists changes the dynamics of the Mann vs NRO/CEI/Steyn lawsuits.
David Brooks says it best:
Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.
In the climate wars, those that use pejorative names for people that they disagree with are the equivalents of racists and anti-semites, and deserve opprobrium and disrespect. It is very sad, not to mention bad for science, to see scientists engaging in this behavior.
We need to open up the public debate about climate change, and get rid of the tyranny of political ‘correctness’ in the climate debate that is being enforced by a handful of self-appointed and readily-offended fools.
Addendum: Upon rereading the post, I realized that I didn’t say anything about cartoons. I am a big fan of satirical cartoons; however I don’t ‘get’ the Charlie cartoons that I’ve seen. I spotted this cartoon on twitter, that seems appropriate for today’s post