Charlie Hebdo and the Politics of Blasphemy


…and even then there’s some part of me that hesitates to post this.

Charlie Hebdo was not exactly a publication of the first rank.  Somewhere between MAD and Playboy is about where one might put it (and no, I am not an avid reader in the slightest).  The reaction in the wake of the French terrorist attack was vivid and real, without the appearance of either appeasement or overreaction.  Ross Douthat over at the New York Times perhaps encapsulated the feelings of America in his op-ed yesterday:

Must all deliberate offense-giving, in any context, be celebrated, honored, praised? I think not. But in the presence of the gun — or, as in the darker chapters of my own faith’s history, the rack or the stake — both liberalism and liberty require that it be welcomed and defended.

This is not something easily digested by many on the left.  Too often in my own experience, toleration is typically extended to those with whom liberals and progressive agree — or at worst, if only in an attempt to pillory what they are not.  It’s a tribalism of the worst sort, and sadly emblematic of what Jonah Goldberg has — in my view, accurately — defined among the American left the confusion of sneering for confidence.

This is worth mentioning, not in an attempt to enrage the liberal reader, but rather to point out the polar opposite extended by Bill Donahue over at the Catholic League:

Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.

. . .

Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.

Anti-Catholic artists in this country have provoked me to hold many demonstrations, but never have I counseled violence. This, however, does not empty the issue. Madison was right when he said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”

Rarely have I found reason to disagree with Donohue, but he is flatly wrong.  Violence is never an acceptable reaction to free speech.  Yet Douthat’s quotation of Christopher Hitchens so eloquently emphasized in the NYT piece is worth recapturing and requoting here (with emphasis added by Douthat):

When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, he did so in the hope of forwarding a discussion that was already opening in the Muslim world, between extreme Quranic literalists and those who hoped that the text could be interpreted. We know what his own reward was, and we sometimes forget that the fatwa was directed not just against him but against “all those involved in its publication,” which led to the murder of the book’s Japanese translator and the near-deaths of another translator and one publisher. I went on Crossfire at one point, to debate some spokesman for outraged faith, and said that we on our side would happily debate the propriety of using holy writ for literary and artistic purposes. But that we would not exchange a word until the person on the other side of the podium had put away his gun.

Christopher Hitchens’ point about having the conversation once the other guy put away the gun has some merit, to be sure.  Yet in most if not all instances though, the conversation has to be held while the gun is being leveled.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer use to talk about stripping violence of its power by refusing to respond in kind, and there’s a certain poetry to it… and for some, a certain defeatism. I’d rather see the confrontation occur though — one that that tells violence that it has no power over conscience, which was Bonhoeffer’s point and the reason why one should rarely if ever respond to violence in kind.

endo_silenceThis does, however, stand in stark contrast with Shusaku Endo’s Silence which I stumbled upon the other day (Scorsese is doing a film based on the book). In the book, the protagonist seeks out his former mentor, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who has worryingly abandoned his faith while serving the Catholic missions in Japan.  In the effort to seek him out, the priest encounters a Japanese regime that assiduously seeks to force Catholic priests and laity to blaspheme their own faith.  Presented with the option of mass slaughter or trampling upon a picture of Christ, the priest ultimately has to have Christ intervene deus ex machina:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Thus the people are saved by blaspheming their own faith — by trampling upon an image of Christ.

I worry that non-violence is the voice of a patient and powerful West at times… and that violence, should we be pushed to extremes, would eventually become the Western response. we are after all the inheritors of Dresden, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima… the inheritance of Rome to “make a desert and call it peace” is quite there.

Still, this is not a question over what one is willing to fight for, but rather a question of how one fights.  Sometimes that’s martyrdom, sometimes it’s self-defense, other times it’s a certain mixture of patience and preparation.

In Endo’s novel, it is a nice juxtaposition of a picture of Christ contrasted with the physical imago Dei that — for Christians — is the human person.  For the West, it is far easier to tolerate a blasphemy that stomps on mere pictures but honors the human soul.  This, I believe, is the primary contention of what is and what is not blasphemy, and whether or not free speech should be tolerated in a pluralistic world.  Indeed it should, but with respect to the human person.

Donahue forgot this.  Douthat touches upon it, and Hitchens merely scrapes the ceiling.  Goldberg appeals to our conscience to a degree, but such introspection is difficult at times. The editors at Charlie Hedbo operated within that latitude of understanding and were brought low by a handful who put the image of God above His creation.

Insofar as the question of blasphemy is concerned, in a free society there is nothing — nothing — that should be outside the bounds of critical inquiry. Whether civil society reacts warmly or coolly to provocations is an entirely different matter, but it is indeed the right and privilege of a free society to tolerate the intolerable.

After all, the best defense against bad speech isn’t good speech.   It’s free speech.

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