Friday, May 8, 2015

Sommes-nous Charlie?

In the wake of global jihad’s sudden realization that there are safer places to take up the cause than a Texas art show, there has been a wave of hand wringing, sympathizing and second guessing all around the notion that Pam Geller and those in attendance at her event – while not exactly “asking for it” – were imprudently courting the sort of violent response the two erstwhile terrorists hoped to mete out. If you suspect someone may react violently to your speech, the "reasoning" goes, then the onus is on your to refrain from such speech so as to prevent the violence.

This call has come from some surprising places.* For example, in the view of two Charlie Hebdo editors, while the slaughter of their coworkers for drawing cartoons of Mohammed were appalling, it turns out threats of violence to others who draw cartoons are very different, however much the same they appear to those of us in the non-cartooning hoi polloi. It’s not clear if the distinction rests on the quality of the cartoons.** But the upshot was: For-profit French cartoons of the Prophet are OK; non-profit American cartoons of the Prophet, are not OK.

And here I naively thought je suis Charlie.

Mind you, those folks at Charlie Hebdo had better be careful not to get too comfy in the saddle of their high horse. Yet another cartoonist, who has made a living for 45 years by giving offense, seemed to think the fellows at Charlie Hebdo – while not exactly “asking for it” – were out of line, too, and should well have expected what they got.

Now, I have written before about how nuanced the world is, how much is grey, how little absolute. But I've also always maintained my Whitman Contradiction License.  So let me go ahead and lay down an absolute Robert's Rule: Speech is speech. Violence is violence. 

Even the most offensive speech you can imagine -- that Westboro gang's hateful three word signs at soldiers' funerals, dunking crucifixes in urinals, 90% of all the anonymous comments everywhere on the internet -- does not justify even the least violence you can imagine. The only acceptable response to speech, presuming you don't simply ignore it, is more speech. Orations, blogs, stage plays, anthems, epic poems, sky writing, sculpture, tracts, pamphlets, bumper stickers -- all are good to go. You can employ condemnation, vilification, expressions of loathing, mockery, satire, sneering contempt and the thumbing of your own nose. Have at it.***

But you do not get to raise a finger against the speaker, and an inquiry into his motives -- which are damned tricky to divine, even if Juan Williams seems to believe he can -- cannot amend the Rule.

Here's a diagnostic you can run on yourself. If you think a speaker is "provoking violence" by speaking, then you utterly fail to understand the difference between speech and violence. Violence can often justifiably provoke violence -- assault someone and he has the right to defend himself; assault him with deadly force and he has the right to end your life. But speech cannot justifiably provoke even a slap in the face. This is the law. But more than that, it is a founding principle of this nation. 

The wonderful thing about speech, even of the vilest sort, is that it leaves everyone free to engage in more speech. Violence, on the other hand, leaves only the winners free to engage in more violence. And as a recent pair of would be jihadis learned the hard way, that violence thing doesn't always work out quite like you're expecting it to.

* I'm not being sarcastic here. I was honestly surprised, although I know I shouldn't be.

** The Geller event was no Armory Show, but I sure hope that's not the key criterion. I drew the picture above on MS Paint and it is not a very good drawing at all.

*** Certainly lots of folks have done just that with the tirelessly self-promoting Ms. Geller,