In thinking over my reaction to the massacre of 17 people in France this past week, I had a vague recollection of my response to a similar event some five years ago:
I shall quote from my far-gentler, youthful self:
It makes no sense to attack or ridicule an entire religion simply because of the asshattery of some doofuses (should that be doofii?) who claim to adhere to that religion. The proper response to these moral cretins is indeed righteous indignation, well-spoken ridicule, and utter disdain. Rather than hate them or attack them, however, the best revenge (if that’s what anyone wants) is to leave them to fester in the sewage of their twisted devotion to hatred masquerading as religion. God, or Allah, or whatever you wish to name Him, is bigger than these people. We should be bigger than them, too. That’s why I’m not drawing a picture of Mohammed. I love and respect my Muslim friends, and I won’t hurt them because an insignificant little group is is overcompensating for something.
This is what I should have said in my most recent response. As I said in a comment earlier today, I’m not in favor of gratuitous mocking of other people’s cherished beliefs. I’ve never drawn a cartoon of Mohammed, not even a reverential one, and I have never mocked anyone’s personal beliefs, at least not intentionally. (Of course, I suspect more than a few people disagree with me on that.) That said, I think satire can be a useful corrective to hypersensitivity and those who seem to thrive on feeling attacked and persecuted (that would include the Kouachi brothers and their friends). I can’t imagine feeling so offended that I would be motivated to hurt or kill someone else, though I am trying to put myself in the place of those who do. (I heartily endorse Eric Liu’s brilliant piece, “I Know Just How You Feel: The Power of Radical Empathy.”)
On the other hand, I don’t really understand people who do gratuitously mock other people’s most cherished beliefs and intend offense. From what I understand, the satirists at “Charlie Hebdo” felt they were performing a vital civic function in ensuring that no group, no belief system, was immune to criticism. So, in a sense I get that. I don’t, however, approve of the content of that “criticism.” A drawing of a burqa shoved up a naked woman’s backside is, to me, well beyond appropriate, insightful, or intelligent criticism. So, were these guys heroes? Maybe, maybe not. I agree with them that no subjects should ever be so sacrosanct that they are beyond criticism. Years ago, I heard literary critic Terry Eagleton criticize the Thatcher government for attempting to make “certain thoughts literally unthinkable.” After his presentation, I asked him if that wasn’t the goal of every ideological system: to make certain thoughts unthinkable. He said I was probably right. But there’s a difference between outlawing certain types of thought and speech and rendering them unnecessary.
So, oddly enough, I agree with my commenter: free speech is a right, and depending on whom you talk to, a right granted by God. But, as with great power, with such freedom comes a degree of responsibility. At the same time, however, if people living in a pluralistic society want respect for their beliefs, whether Muslim or Mormon or atheist or anything else, they also must respect the rights of others to disagree with those beliefs, even in a mocking way. I have always been disgusted by those “protesters” outside Temple Square who drag the Book of Mormon on the ground or wipe their backsides with temple garments, but I would never question their right to do so. The same goes for the morons of Westboro Baptist, whose actions and speech are repugnant and hateful. Or the folks who have made my hometown the porn capital of the world. Free speech isn’t always pretty, but it must be free.
In short (I know, I’m never brief), I don’t have to lionize the folks at Charlie Hebdo any more than I honor The Onion or Larry Flynt. I do, however, honor a fundamental human value: the right to express what we think. And I do honor the police personnel who died protecting that right, Ahmet Merabet and.