The civilized world’s reaction to the bloody attack on the offices of the satirical French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo has largely been heartening.
Millions worldwide have expressed solidarity with the satirists who were gunned down merely for repeatedly goring the ox of militant Islam. Those who defend the impulse to forcibly silence the voices of dissent, ranging from radical Islamist clerics to censorious Catholic League presidents, have for the most part been shunned, ridiculed, or ignored. This targeted attack on insensitive, but nevertheless protected, speech has been met with even more free and inconsiderate speech. Mirabile visu.
There are those, however, who have come to the defense of the extremist impulse to quiet one’s critics. Understandably, few of them make their living by expressing themselves in print; the glaring hypocrisy in that represents an insurmountable intellectual obstacle for most.
But there are an intrepid few who have endeavored to sympathize with those so offended by free expression that they can only just tolerate its existence. The latest example of this phenomenon was submitted by The Daily Beast columnist Arthur Chu on Friday.
“Shooting people is wrong,” Chu opened an epic tome ostensibly on the subject of “trolls and martyrdom.” When you feel the need to clarify that you are opposed to retributive political violence at the top of a column on the subject, you should perhaps rethink the point you are seeking to make in the body.
Chu declined to engage in this introspection, however, before he plunged into a dissertation on the clumsy and crude content published by the slain editors of Charlie Hebdo. He insisted that, while murder is totally bad and stuff, “Charlie Hebdo is also a crap publication and people need to stop celebrating it and making martyrs out of its staff.”
“Let’s be real about what Charlie Hebdo is,” Chu continued. “Calling it ‘journalism’ isn’t quite right. Even the term ‘satirical newspaper’ puts it on the same level as The Onion, which isn’t very fair to The Onion, which strives for at least some degree of cleverness and subtlety, most of the time.”
Chu repeatedly noted that he abhors the murder of 12 French editors, satirists, and police over hurt feelings, but added that he is equally appalled by the elevation of their work to something noble.
“You see, I’m from the Internet,” Chu divulged. “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.”
When the only thing you’re reverent of is irreverence, when the only thing you hold sacred is the idea that nothing is sacred, well, you eventually get chan culture, you get one long continuous blast of pure offensiveness and taboo-breaking for taboo-breaking’s sake until all taboos are broken and there’s nothing left to say. You get people who shout racial slurs in unbroken succession all day and think they’ve accomplished something in the name of “free speech” by doing so.
Well, that’s their right in a free country. It may be fun and it may get them paid, until oversaturation ruins our sense for irony and destroys the market for it.
Given that all of human history is the story of a continuous evolution of tastes, and that this millennium’s taboo is another generation’s celebrated pastime, it is an admission of historical illiteracy to suggest that a future in which “all the taboos are broken” is even imaginable.
What’s more, at least in regards to the sensitivity with which we approach the use of “racial slurs” in popular culture, Western sensitivities are more easily offended by their use today than they were just one generation ago. A time when popular programs like All in the Family and Saturday Night Live tackled racial anxieties and did not shy away from using the offensive language which accompanies that subject is a living memory of millions.
Chu closes by asserting that Charlie Hebdo attack was wildly successful and that the terrorists have essentially won. Conservatives have also argued this point, but they cite the fact that so many news organizations have opted to bury or censor the images the so enraged these murderous terrorists and have thus lent credence to the killers’ stated motivation. Chu does not, however, make this argument. He claims that the terrorists have claimed a victory because their actions martyred unrefined satire, augmented European Islamophobia, and made it more likely that others will seek to insult Islam in a similar fashion. In this way, the tensions between the West and the Islamic world will only grow worse, and the ultimate reckoning will become more likely.
“Now that’s another a level of irony indeed—all the more so because it’s a level of irony that escaped the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo,” Chu closes.
For someone who clearly fails to recognize irony in his own right, this is a mighty bold statement.
It is too soon to know what the legacy of the Charlie Hebdo attack will be, but it may end up as one of the most consequential terror attacks since those on September 11, 2001. This attack was different from so many of its predecessors in that it was an assault on a cherished notion, a Western value so supreme that it was presumed unassailable: The right to think and express oneself freely. This attack has focused millions of minds on what is truly at stake in the clash of civilizations. This is a fight between the inheritors of The Enlightenment and those who would consign mankind back into theocratic bondage.
It is all the better that the content of this magazine is of debatable taste. No one goes to war over universally acclaimed speech. As a civilization, the West has been forced to stand up in defense of perfectly vulgar drivel. That is what protections on free expression are designed to safeguard. From television to talk radio to print, Western society has for too long been given to censoring offensive speech by banishing those who practice it from the public square. We have now learned that the offended cannot be appeased.
If the legacy of the massacre in Paris is a renewed appreciation for the value of art that vocal minorities find detestable, it will be a welcome development. As an added benefit, this attack seems to have exposed those who view free speech as a commodity to be rationed only to those who are subjectively determined worthy of the honor. While it will forever be a horrible tragedy, the legacy of the attack on Charlie Hebdo may some day be a positive one.