Initially, I was heartened by the belief that my fellow countrymen and countrywomen were so fervently supportive of freedom of expression that they would elevate that right over another’s “right” to not be offended. Whether they were aware of it or not, all of these new “Charlies” I surmised, must subscribe to the idea embedded in the quote commonly misattributed to Voltaire that "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Upon further reflection, however, I think there are probably far fewer Charlie Hebdos in the United States than perhaps the reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris would suggest. I’ve never been a huge fan of David Brooks, but as he rightly points out in “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” his most recent Op-Ed column in the New York Times:
“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.
Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.”
You really don’t need to look that far and wide to find concrete examples of what David Brooks is talking about. Just this morning I read that the Federal Trade Commission is now getting involved in the kerfuffle over the naming of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Seems despite its use by the team since 1933, the name is suddenly so inappropriate that we’re going to leverage the considerable power and resources of the federal government to quiet the team owners (or at least force them to change the team name to something more acceptably benign). But instead of being aghast at this development, a good number of us are cheering it. The name “Redskins” is offensive after all. That ought to tell you something about how dissimilar we in this country are to Charlie Hebdo.
But that’s really not the same thing you might be telling yourself. Really? Then how about the Westboro Baptist “Church” and its merry band of idiots? You know, the inbreds from Kansas that routinely show up to protest soldier funerals with signs proclaiming “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Despite the patent offensiveness of these backwards-ass fucktards, do the collective “we” defend their right to publicly express their misguided and delusional ideas? Hardly. There have been massive efforts supported by most of the population to quiet these folks because, well, they are offensive. And we find being offensive so offensive that we have passed a number of federal and state laws, the ultimate objective of which is to silence these fools. When Westboro was sued by the family of a soldier whose funeral they picketed, and the case reached the United States Supreme Court, forty-three (43) U.S. Senators (or 86% of the senate chamber) and forty-eight states plus the District of Columbia (an astonishing 96% of the states) filed amicus briefs which opposed Westboro. In an 8-1 decision, and much to our collective dismay, the Supreme Court ultimately vindicated Westboro’s right to offend, but the message from society at large was clear: we are not Charlie Hebdo.
And while we’re on the subject of “fags,” try using that term for any purpose or in any context other than self-identification. If we’re really so immune to offense and supportive of free expression, publicly invoke the phrase “that’s so gay” to describe something that is lame and gauge the reaction. How about the “n-word.” Again, unless you’re self-identifying and thus get a free pass, we collectively find the term so outrageously offensive that we can’t even say or write the word regardless of context. In fact, humorously but sadly, the word is so objectionable that we attribute guilt by association to other words that sound suspiciously like the “n-word” but have absolutely no connection to it or its meaning (for example, the word “niggardly” which means “cheap” or “chintzy”). That, of course, is not to say that the n-term is inoffensive. It is, but that really isn’t the issue.
There are so many examples of society (the collective “we”) wanting to stifle and/or punish speech or ideas that we, or some of us, find insulting or offensive that I could fill a number of pages discussing them. We routinely still ban books (including such subversive titles as Captain Underpants) because they are sexually explicit, contain offensive language, contain violence, involve homosexuality, pertain to the occult or explore satanic themes, are “anti-family,” and/or are otherwise “unsuitable.” We attempt to squash artistic pieces like “Piss Christ” because while it is perfectly acceptable and even fun to offend Islam, it is most certainly not acceptable to offend Christianity or any of its adherents. Music, particularly rap and metal, is a regular target of government and societal censors. The banning of speakers on college campuses, gleefully supported by supposedly free-minded students and faculty, is pervasive. And then some of those faculty members and students are themselves punished for expressing views or publishing content that our societal minders find inappropriate. Karma’s a bitch ain’t it?
Yeah, yeah, I realize that we generally do not share the point of view held by the now dead fanatical gunmen in Paris that offensive speech is punishable by death. But no matter how you rationalize it, we generally do share the belief that offensive speech should be punished and subverted. It’s just a matter of degree. I’m not suggesting that difference in degree is an invalid basis upon which to make distinctions. But on a certain level, it is a distinction without a difference here that ultimately compels the inconvenient and uncomfortable conclusion that the Paris terrorist are certainly not Charlie Hebdo and neither are we.