Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Paris Terror Attack, 'Charlie Hebdo' And The Limits of 'Free' Expression

The ghastly terror attacks yesterday morning in Paris, which left 12 dead and 4 critically wounded,  have been described as the "French 9/11". Of course, this is gross exaggeration. In fact, the bombing of a Cuban airliner over Barbados on Oct. 6, 1976 - leaving 73 dead-  is more in line with the magnitude of a 9/11. But let's get to the point which inheres in one question asked by many thinking people yesterday:

Can one condemn the brazen attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine but also criticize the outrageous satires the medium used, especially to attack Muslims?

This, let us grasp, resides at the core of  free expression. Because if you condemn the attacks but don't also permit criticism of the magazine's outrageous and provocative cartoons, then you are NO free speech champion. For while you would extend the license of all out free expression to Charlie Hebdo you would deny it to any who might criticize its over the top 'humor' - which often attacked, disrespected a whole culture .

This came to the fore yesterday in one column by global editor Tony Barber, on the Financial Times.

Barber condemned the brazen attack but also observed it might never have transpired had Charlie Hebdo exercised even a modicum of common sense, and temperance in its satire.  This elicited no fewer than 1,000 comments of which the bulk - perhaps 800 - were mindless and savage attacks on Barber's article - even calling for his firing from the FT.

Wow! What tremendous demonstration of support for  "free expression"! Don't these moron champions grasp that by calling for Barber's head, they have in fact become hypocrites? If they extend the license for Charlie Hebdo to depict the icon of Islam as sodomizing himself in cartoons, yet deny Barber his own expression of (very sober) opinion in his piece, then that is what they are!

They pick and choose what forms of free speech (mostly over the top jabs at others' cultures, religions)  they will defend, but are prepared to condemn and punish those who dare to offer second thoughts, or criticism of CH. This is unacceptable.

These people, make no mistake, are no different from the "free speech" champions who called for Bill Maher's firing from 'Politically Incorrect' in 2001, after he said the 9//11 attackers demonstrated courage by actually flying planes into buildings.  Maher was released from his ABC  show, just like Ward Churchill was released from his position as professor at Univ. of Colorado when someone dug up his essay "On Roosting Chickens' - referring to the World Trade Center workers (mainly investment specialists)  as "little Eichmanns".

Outrageous? Sure! But you  do not get to pick and choose which forms of free expression you will defend and which you will ignore if you declare yourself a real free speech champion. Cafeteria free speechers are hypocrites, pure and simple. So, if they are yelping now about Charlie Hebdo's right to have done those outrageous satires, but kept their lips zipped for Bill Maher and Ward Churchill's expressions, then their yap isn't worth an ounce of doggie lickspittle.

Churchill meanwhile lost his job which the media was perfectly okay with because well, he "lacked discretion and common sense". (The CU honchos realized it would look bad to fire him for speech, after all that's what universities are supposed to be about, so dreamed up a "plagiarism finding" which centered on Churchill alone, no other faculty.)

Now, fast forward to yesterday, Tony Barber basically said the same thing regarding CH in lacking common sense and also showing "stupidity" for some of its more over the top depictions. But he was literally crucified for defecting from the party line, errrr.....parrot line, that HEY! Charlie Hebdo had every right to insult whoever or whatever they wanted - like a giant baby or drunk pissing and defecating on everyone in view.

One moron actually wrote in one of the comments: "Free speech means the right to insult anyone you want, at any time and not have to worry about any consequences!"

To which I responded that this was not free speech but licensed insanity. No one gets to insult whoever and whatever they want without any consequences. Ask any drunk in a bar who after one too many begins hurling epithets at the mothers of the all the other patrons. Think he will last very long before being punched out for his intemperance? Anyone who believes so is an idiot. So yes, there can be free expression but it is daft to expect and demand free expression with no consequences. That is a fantasy world.

Another commenter, 'Marianna NYC',  in line with my view, also noted that free expression doesn't mean one can say whatever, curse anyone's god or prophet, with no consequences. That is not the world we inhabit and most of the planet's populace - unlike the libertine West - holds radically different  (and much more conservative) views of speech and how free it can be. And even in Germany you can be put away for making jokes about Jews "going to the ovens" or denying the holocaust.

Now, consider what I will refer to as one of the best examples of Charlie Hebdo's recklessness in expression - not "free" expression. This was cited last night by Chris Hayes on his 'All In' show noting how the French in 2012  - had to CLOSE twenty embassies around the world because Charlie Hebdo published cartoon representations of Mohammed naked.  A nation having to shutter temporarily 20 embassies in the wake!? Can no one of intelligence see that this response itself shows the representations were reckless,  not free expression? No genuine free speech should necessitate a nation closing 20 embassies, I am sorry!

Yes, to blind Westerners this is a hee-haw but imagine if Al Jazeera did the same thing in a cartoon about Christ- including sporting a huge boner. Would we still be laughing? I doubt it!

Marianna NYC's plea in her assorted comments on the FT site was that yes, let's have speech - wonderful free expression - but how about making it positive and uplifting? Must it inevitably drag others' gods, prophets, leaders down into the gutter to get laughs for the rest of us? Can we not put ourselves in others' shoes and experience some empathy for their sensibilities? How can we ever expect to make the world a better place by tearing others down, whether via films ('Desert Warrior', 'The Interview') or by over the top "satire" which is designed to impale raw nerves and inflame hatreds?

Again, Marianna and Tony Barber  note this is not to in any way justify the dastardly and cowardly attacks, but only to try to make people understand these didn't occur in vacuo. (The same way Ward Churchill tried to tell people that 9/11 didn't occur in vacuo.) By therefore exercising more responsibility and discretion - which too many in the West see as limitation- we can therefore find a way to forge humor that doesn't step over the line to provoke attacks like Benghazi. We can have humor and satire but without the nastiness and disrespect that only sows hate.

Sadly, until the West grasps the freedom paradox - that there can be no absolute freedom - i.e. without responsibility, we will never see any advancement on this issue.

From one website on the freedom paradox:

"In our age freedom is a distorted and detached concept, a kind of abstraction. There is little connection of freedom to responsibility , to the common good or to truth. To the modern world freedom is essentially understood as “the ability to do whatever I please.” Now the absurdity of such a definition is usually evident in our time as my radical freedom bumps up against your radical freedom and suddenly we’re demanding laws!

The first paradox of freedom is that true freedom is experienced only in relation to what is good and true.

The second paradox of freedom is that, since we are contingent and limited beings, we can only experience freedom within parameters and by limiting our freedom to a certain extent:

The Third paradox of freedom is that my freedom today often exists due to prior constraint."

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