“Can’t you take a joke?” Charlie Hebdo, tolerance, and why the joke is on the West

"Free Speech Doesn't Mean Careless Talk&q...

“Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Careless Talk” – NARA – 513606 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are considered important for a free society. Both of these freedoms support the common opinion that binds a society together.[1] The freedom to philosophize is the source for these freedoms. Yet, unlike the freedom to philosophize, a purely private activity, the community limits the freedom of speech and freedom of press, which are exercised publicly. Even if a government allows speech, the community may restrict it. Even though no society practices universal toleration, most do practice a form of toleration. Unlike the ancient world, today the government protects speech and rarely restrains speech. Such a view, though, is only a modern idea, as the ancient societies did not practice toleration.

When Athens killed Socrates they set the limit to philosophy as speech

When Athens put Socrates to death, for speaking publicly and freely on matters that challenged the community’s common opinion, they set philosophy’s public limit. In response, philosophy made a concerted effort to convince communities that it was not a threat. Philosophy’s success in this project can be measured by the extent to which communities allow free speech and a free press. Governments only limit speech that threatens public safety narrowly understood, and more widely to ensure the survival of the regime. The change came from Thomas Hobbes who planted the idea of freedom of speech within the modern nation state. He argued that the sovereign would respect and protect private beliefs and control of public speech would be limited to what was required to ensure the public peace was maintained in the commonwealth.[2] The modern state will tolerate speech to the extent that it does not challenge the regime or the public peace. Yet, the claim to free speech raises the question. If you speak in accord with the regime or the community, are you practicing free speech? In the case of Socrates and Athens, the community was forced to choose between Socrates and the Athenian regime. The regime defended itself by putting him to death.[3] The same argument applies to the Charlie Hebdo incident. The society will tolerate and protect satirists so long as they do not threaten the society.

What you claim as tolerance, I have to experience as repressive tolerance

The French society is considered a tolerant society that practices a form of liberal democratic toleration. However, that tolerance was far from universal. What the French society displayed before the Charlie Hebdo incident could be called repressive toleration. Herbert Marcuse described this as the point at which a society, to defend itself, demonstrates the limit of its toleration.[4] The tolerance is repressive in that the public, or groups, are required to tolerate the status quo as legitimate.[5] If they disagree with it, they must tolerate it as the basis for membership in that society even if they work to change it. Even if the society or the government are not choosing a side, the status quo is defended. As the status quo, Charlie Hebdo’s satire was less a defence of free speech than a defence of the orthodox or community view on France’s relationship with Muslims. Here, the Muslims experienced repressive tolerance, as they had to accept the orthodoxy that tolerated and defended Charlie Hebdo.

Tolerance finds its limit at the point where free speech begins.

Thought has to exist beyond what the society will tolerate publicly or it cannot be considered free. Consequently, philosophy has to be a private activity. Charlie Hebdo expressed publicly the community’s view–the orthodoxy.[6] In such a society, though, the orthodoxy appears repressive. Other heterodox groups, such as extremist anti-Muslim groups are not tolerated. Perhaps this is why the Islamic gunmen did not target them. They know these groups hate them and do not seek their acceptance. Yet, this shows that French society’s promise to tolerate their views is limited. They know that the government bans, controls and disapproves of extreme anti-Muslim behaviour. In this effort, French society appears to fulfil its liberal promise of tolerance. The hate groups do not act with the official approval or tolerance. However, in a basic sense, though the hate groups attempt to exercise a freedom of speech as they confront the orthodoxy with heterodox view. In this effort, the liberal democratic state appears consistent. It suppresses extremist speech to protect the public good. Yet, the orthodoxy, which promises to suppress anti-Muslim groups stops short. The society still practices intolerance and encourages a repressive tolerance. To the Muslims who want tolerance for their beliefs concerning the Prophet, the apparent tolerance of the Charlie Hebdo blasphemy appears as racist and bigoted. “Hey, don’t be insulted it is only a bit of fun. We know how this will have an effect on you, but, hey, it’s only a bit of satire. Can’t you take a joke?” In this, the liberal democratic state’s tolerance of Muslim concerns stops at satire, an orthodox behaviour. If the speech conforms to the orthodoxy, it will be tolerated.

What is a society without restraint?

For most people, the Charlie Hebdo incident has been understood as a heinous attack by gunmen intent on killing those who had profaned the Prophet. The incident has been described as an attack on free speech. The writers and artists died in defence of free speech. They published controversial cartoons despite the requests and threats of Muslims to stop. As French citizens, they claimed they had the right to blaspheme or satirise whomever and whatever they wanted. If someone could demand that they stop, then they argued freedom of speech would no longer exist. They would not surrender to censorship or practice restrain that would be self-censorship.

There is a good higher than satire or freedom of speech, which is in question.

The highest good for the satirist is the freedom of speech expressed as the freedom to satirise. Nothing is higher than that right as nothing can constrain it. Yet, that cannot be true as they live within a society that must exist for them to practice their freedom of speech. By contrast, the highest good for Muslims is Allah. Their society exists to serve him. At this level, the issue appears to be a clash between irreconcilable goods, which the state cannot resolve without a choice. As the orthodox position, though, the perceived clash between civilisations misses the deeper issues in this incident. It leaves unexplored the society that provides the context for the free speech and what the free speech seeks to achieve. What is the society that freedom of speech wants to achieve? If freedom of speech is to serve society, it is to help individuals and by extension the society discover what is best for the society. The speech has to be open to enquiry or it only serves to confirm society’s orthodoxy. When speech confirms society’s orthodoxy, it stops being free speech.

Even when commentators, like Gerry Trudeau and the PEN members, voice concerns about the way Muslims have been portrayed, they stay on the surface. They overlook the deeper issue. The Charlie Hebdo incident reveals the tensions in a liberal democratic society over free speech and the limit of tolerance. To explore this tension though, we have to understand the intrinsic limit to satire. We need to consider why the satirists chose their targets. In turn, we need to explore the context within which the satirists worked. Finally, we have to consider the wider question of what the highest good within the West if the highest good is freedom as demonstrated in the freedom of speech to satirise.

Section 1: Is there a limit to satire or speech?

Most people, especially in the United States, believe passionately that there is no limit to free speech. They claim that the First Amendment, which provides their right to free speech, is an absolute right. The common view is flawed in that there is a limit to speech in the United States in two important ways. First, it does not cover private speech within a company or an organisation. Second, there are limits to the speech as set by law. The second limit is consistent across other societies. All societies limit speech either on national security grounds, or with hate speech laws, or blasphemy laws. Even if law does not limit satire, it is limited by two further factors. First, it is limited what the satirist wants to cover based on their personal preferences. Second, it is limited by what society will tolerate. The satirist has a reason to satirize a person, object, or idea and that reason starts to reveal the limits to satire. The reason can be personal or it can reflect what the society will tolerate. However, it is a limit.

Is common decency self-censorship?

The counter argument is that what the satirist’s choice is not a limit or a prohibition. The issue is whether the satire is being prohibited by a threat or a command from someone else be it a country, a person, or an organisation. Yet satirist who would target the Prophet would also avoid some topics either by personal choice or by societal pressure. At a basic level, if they are professionals, they have to sell their product so they must find a market for it. They have to cater to what the market will tolerate. In each case, the satirist has a choice of the target or topic. The Charlie Hebdo writers, for example, have not satirized their own dead. They did not find that a topic worthy of satire. Immediately one might ask how or why they would want to satirise their dead colleagues. Alternatively, they could satirise society’s repugnance at child sexual abuse. When they refrain from satirizing such topics, it shows a limit. In this case, common decency directs that these topics be avoided. Common decency allows civilisation to exist. Others might say, “Well anyone else can satirise their dead that is the nature of free speech.” And they would be right. Yet, we look everywhere for such satire and it is missing. Again, someone can say, “No one stops such satire.” Again, they would be right. Yet, the issue is why is it not chosen as a topic? What we choose reflects who we are, it reflects our context, and it reflects our society. A satirist is shaped by their society in their choices. The Charlie Hebdo satire is there to attack Islam as it cannot refute it or rebut it. Instead, it uses the tactical advantages to undermine Islam before public opinion, a public opinion that is already sympathetic to the ridicule.

Second Two: The satire reflects the orthodoxy.

When satire occurs, it occurs within a political, cultural, or societal context. In France, the topics of satire are within, not outside, the wider political orthodoxy. Consequently, the Charlie Hebdo targets reflect what the orthodoxy will tolerate as a target. They have not taken a stand against society as they have endorsed the orthodoxy’s view. Their satire is less free speech than an echo of the orthodoxy.

No so much punching down as defending the orthodoxy as free speech

Some writers have argued that Charlie Hebdo acts from a relative position of power and acceptance. Charlie Hebdo is protected by the state. They can act in the knowledge that society protects them. Some have described the satire as “punching down”. Such a view, though, misses the point. It is not punching down; it is punching with the majority. The satirists act less as a social conscience against society’s inequalities and flaws and more as a societal court jester that indulges the majority.

Their claim to challenge powerful opinions or prejudices within France simply masks the orthodoxy they serve. When they attack the Catholic Church, Israel and politicians, they echo what the society believes. In their satire, they act as the societal shock troops to assimilate these groups into French society and remind them that they serve French society and liberal democracy. Charlie Hebdo is part of the French society and they are French citizens demonstrating their targets have to conform to French societal norms.

Can the West claim to be tolerant when Muslims are second-class citizens?

By contrast, Muslims face a daily challenge of cultural survival. Society discriminates against them despite claims to tolerate them. They are strangers in a strange land. One could say they live as second-class citizens on the margins of French society. The French will point to French Muslims who have made a success in France. In that, they would be right. The opportunity does exist for some to achieve. They are the exception, though, as acceptance comes from assimilation. They must demonstrate tolerance for all that France embodies. France, as a liberal democratic society does not tolerate so much as require assimilation for acceptance. They must renounce who they are and accept the liberal identity. Such a test is to accept the Charlie Hebdo satire.

Religion’s death rattle in the face of liberalism’s onslaught?

In the same way, attacks on Catholicism and Judaism are acceptable as they reflect and exist within French society’s laicism. French Catholicism, already hollowed out by modernity, is drained of any belief comparable in intensity or seriousness to Islam. Catholicism offers no meaningful alternative to the liberal state that challenges it existentially. By contrast, Islam resists the liberal state politically and intellectually. The orthodoxy says that religion is a private matter, which drains it of public meaning and importance. On this basis, religion is tolerated as it exists under liberal democracy’s supremacy in the public domain. Islam, by contrast, struggles with modernity both within itself and within the wider international system. The international system is a liberal democratic system that encourages liberal democratic tendencies[7]. Against this background, the Taliban and ISIS are not a new jihad. They are not a new call to Allah. They are not a new prophet come to bring peace. They are the death rattle of a religion. Islam fate is the same as Christianity and Judaism. It is to be consumed by liberalism.

Satire is tolerance or is tolerance a satire?

Satire against the weak is vicious, brutal, and unnecessary. The Muslims in France are weak. They are on the defensive. They are strangers in a strange land that is increasingly inhospitable. They want to find a way to live West’s promise on their own terms of tolerance. They find the promise empty. Tolerance is only an interregnum before they are assimilated. The West, though, wants to have it both ways. It wants to be tolerant and repress those it tolerates. In this behaviour, the West no longer knows what it means to tolerate or to assimilate. The modern state replaced religion with ideology as the test for citizenship. The change allows the state to control violence used to promote or defend beliefs. If you ascribe to liberalism, you will be tolerated. Today, though, the danger is removed which means that tolerance does not keep the peace as much as impose liberalism. The tolerance has become repressive tolerance.

Charlie Hebdo exemplifies this work. Satire ridicules and suppresses that which the liberal democratic state cannot refute. Here the Ancien Regime returns with full force. The French Revolution’s promise of the rights of man evaporates as politics reasserts itself. France no longer lives to that promise. France does not believe in the rights of man. It believes in the rights of Westerners who ascribe to liberal democracy.

Third section: what kind of society does satire seek to achieve?

Liberalism and tolerance succeeded in large part because they provided an alternative argument about the best way to live. Tolerance emerged as those who wanted to promote liberalism demanded it. In turn, they promised toleration and for centuries liberalism delivered on its promise. However, as the dominant ideology, it cannot deliver the same promise. Liberalism, at its heart, is intolerant and illiberal. We see this illiberalism in Charlie Hebdo and the demands for privacy against state surveillance. Liberalism, which champions the individual over the community, finds it difficult to reconcile its principles to the increased demands from the individual. Liberalism finds it difficult to resist arguments that provide an alternative to it as the best way to live. To tolerate constraint, such as a request not to publish images of Allah, would threaten liberalism’s identity as it strikes at liberalism’s source in individual’s freedom of speech. Liberalism overcomes this by an illiberal institution, the sovereign state that would control the public domain and regulate public speech. So long as the group or idea assimilates to the dominant ideology, liberalism, the sovereign state will tolerate its entry and speech. In a sense, this is the trade-off necessary to make the nation state a success.

Another way to understand this is to consider that Liberalism became a religion. As a religion, Liberalism is jealous of any other gods that might contest the citizen’s loyalty. In this case, Allah draws people away from liberalism. Muslims, and privacy advocates, have rekindled questions the Hobbesian nation state was supposed to have answered—loyalty, legitimacy and obligation. Here we see the challenge as liberal society no longer contains a clearly agreed touchstone that creates loyalty, legitimacy or obligation. The individual, enhanced by technology, demands the state wither away so they can be free of its arbitrary constraints. The state resists this disintegration by its promise and ability to deliver individual benefits. Yet, if we are loyal only because of the sovereign state’s ability to deliver individual benefits, we lack a viable alternative to Islam’s demands on the best way to live. Islam presents the same challenge at the ideological level as it presents a rival basis for loyalty, obligation and obedience.

Do we have a good life if that life is what the majority tells us?

The issue is more than majority rule or totalitarian democracy. Instead, it is to ask what animates the West and calls for the loyalty, which was the basis for tolerance. It would appear that the West is uncertain of what society it wants to be. If we raise freedom of speech and thought to sacred objects, we confront the question of what end does such freedom serve? The Muslims have an answer to that question, as does the individual who seeks privacy to indulge their hedonism. Western Liberalism no longer provides an answer. One can argue that it is not for liberalism to provide an answer to the best way to live. Yet, if it is not for liberalism to provide that answer, what does provide that answer?

The individual vs the state an eternal debate or has technology solved it.

Even if we do not accept that liberalism has to answer that question or can simply reject what Islam has to offer, the question remains. What kind of society do we want? The highest good for the individual, as obtained through freedom of thought and freedom of speech, may not be the highest goal for a society. The tension always exists. The problem is that the increased illusion of free speech has led to a greater censorship of the public domain and greater intolerance. The state becomes a tool to be captured to enforce the intolerance and support the freedom of speech that is free to the extent it echoes the majority’s intolerance as it expresses the societal orthodoxy. The state and society become intolerant to defend freedom of speech but only to the extent the speech expresses the orthodoxy’s view. The difference, though, is that the public police public speech more severely and completely than the state. Thus, those who speak in the public domain reflect the orthodoxy and not a heterodox view.

Freedom of thought as long as you agree with us.

We can see the strength of that orthodoxy when those who question Charlie Hebdo are accused of agreeing with the attackers or blaming the victim. Commentators quickly defend the orthodoxy and attack dissent. When the orthodox writers claim, “Well, at least we are allowing you to write that and we are not killing you”, they overlook the inequality within the society. Their power to suppress heterodox views through a variety of non-violent means backed by the power of the state undermines the claim to freedom of thought. Just as Muslims do not tolerate attacks on the Prophet, the orthodoxy does not tolerate attacks on free speech. Yet the attack, through satire on Islam, suggests that France no longer has the power to tolerate challenges to its orthodoxy. Satire does not rebut the challenge. The West can no longer rebut the challenge or explain freedom’s purpose. Freedom to satire serves except to attack the orthodoxy’s targets. Philosophers act as society’s court jesters playing the fools through word games and solipsistic public posturing. If freedom of speech and the freedom to satire simply promote the orthodoxy, can the West claim to be a society that tolerates freedom of thought? Perhaps the joke is on the West except it is excused by fact that it neither understands the joke nor understands why it is laughing.

[1] Just as all societies rest upon a common opinion so to do governments. See the Federalist Paper 49.

[2] Hobbes Leviathan Book 18 In the midst of chapter 18, Hobbes lists 12 rights of the sovereign. The central right is Right 6: The sovereign is to judge what is necessary for the peace, which can include public opinion. http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-c.html#CHAPTERXVIII (accessed 12 March 2014)

[3] “Socratic philosophy is a rebellion against the Sparta in Athens. The Athenians’ willingness to endure Socrates’ embarrassing cross- examinations demonstrated an openness to this enterprise. His execution revealed the limits of their remarkable indulgence. In the end, they proved unable to condone what they regarded as corruption of future citizens, since Socrates was diverting the primary allegiance of gifted youth from Athens to his philosophy (cf. Gorgias, 481 DI-C3, 513C7-DI, 526D5-527A4).” Harry Neumann SOCRATES AND THE TRAGEDY OF ATHENS Social Research, Vol. 35, No. 3 (AUTUMN 1968), pp. 426-444

[4] See Repressive Tolerance

“And such universal tolerance is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction. As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’: they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality (which is certainly compatible with constitutional equality), i.e., by the class structure of society. In such a society, tolerance is de facto limited on the dual ground of legalized violence or suppression (police, armed forces, guards of all sorts) and of the privileged position held by the predominant interests and their ‘connections’.

These background limitations of tolerance are normally prior to the explicit and judicial limitations as defined by the courts, custom, governments, etc. (for example, ‘clear and present danger’, threat to national security, heresy). Within the framework of such a social structure, tolerance can be safely practiced and proclaimed. It is of two kinds: (i) the passive toleration of entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on man and nature is evident, and (2) the active, official tolerance granted to the Right as well as to the Left, to movements of aggression as well as to movements of peace, to the party of hate as well as to that of humanity I call this non-partisan tolerance ‘abstract’ or ‘pure’ inasmuch as it refrains from taking sides–but in doing so it actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination.”

[5] We can also reverse this to indicate what the powerful can censor. The state may outlaw certain speech and society may impose sanctions on those who speak out contrary to what society wants. This is described in Thucydides. For the censorship which their power permits the oligarchs to impose corroborates the Athenian contention that all strive to rule wherever they can or that “might makes right” (V, 105; cf. II, 22.1 IV, 22). Harry Neumann SOCRATES AND THE TRAGEDY OF ATHENS Social Research, Vol. 35, No. 3 (AUTUMN 1968), pp. 426-444 (page 429)

[6] In 2011 Nicolas Sarkozy declared that multiculturalism had failed. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8317497/Nicolas-Sarkozy-declares-multiculturalism-had-failed.html


[7] See Liberal Democratic Tendencies


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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