Sunday brought the story of six members of PEN America, citing impressively asinine and ill-informed arguments, protesting that a free-speech organization was giving a courage-in-free-speech award to Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoon newspaper that was massacred for its courageous free speech. Now comes the chaser: A full 145 members of PEN, including some of the original refuseniks (and some other names you might recognize, such as Joyce Carol Oates), have attached their name to a remarkable document that encapsulates as well as anything I have seen the sick cloud that hangs over the Enlightenment idea of free speech.
"We do not believe in censoring expression," the 145 write, ominously. (Strange, how no actual champion of free speech I've ever encountered has felt the need to issue such a disclaimer.) "However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression."
The Nation's Katha Pollitt, in a marvelous rejoinder, isolates the pathogens in that paragraph:
Well, sure, but excuse me: violates the acceptable? The acceptable what? And don't we need writing and artwork that pushes the boundary of what the acceptable is?
The real mission statement of the anti-Charlie faction, though, comes next:
In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were characterized as satire and "equal opportunity offense," and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.
Bolding mine, though please don't zoom past the cavalcade of passive tense voice and scare-quotes and weasel words just prior, which manage to simultaneously cast a smirking aspersion on Charlie Hebdo defenders, while paying grudging tribute to the discomfiting fact that said defenders actually had more than a nodding, Google-enabled familiarity with the publication under dispute. It would be awkward for 145 alleged intellectuals to sign off on a document that made such easily disprovable assertions as signatory Francine Prose's comment to Pollitt that "It's a racist publication. Let's not beat about the bush," so better to holster the race card and instead pivot to an insane new free-speech concept: Even if you are truly equal in offending every segment of society, you are still guilty, because some segments are worse off than others.
You don't need an active imagination to see how this New Rule will immediately be broken. An acidic Nick Cohen (whose revulsion at the literary ambush of Charlie Hebdo's dead staffers left him wondering "whether it was worth staying on the middle-class left"), put it plainly:
Let me dispense with their bullshit about biting your tongues out of respect for marginalised and excluded. If this were true, left intellectuals and media would watch what they said about the working class supporters of the Tea Party, French NF and Ukip.
(The fact that the National Front was Charlie Hebdo's biggest target of satire remains stubbornly uncited in the voluminous garbology surrounding the newspaper.)
Set aside the hypocrisy for a moment, and just think about the practicality of pre-calibrating your speech based on the comparative unequal status of the broad demographic group that the narrow target of your satire may or may not belong to. Doesn't sound like a particularly freeing exercise, even if you (like Charlie Hebdo did) focus primarily on people who hold power.
Such a wretched manifesto would be empty without some gratuitous authoritarianism, so:
Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.
Charlie Hebdo satirized the Islamic radicals who tried to have them killed. Eventually, the latter group succeeded. So in which direction, again, do these inequities apply?
As for the misapplied punching-up/punching-down meme underlying all this, The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, who speaks French and has lived in France, put it well:
Few groups in recent French history have been more passionately "minoritarian"—more marginalized or on the outs with the political establishment, more vitriolic in their mockery of power, more courageous in ridiculing people of far greater influence and power. They were always punching up at idols and authorities.
We're not done musting. From the 145:
To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France's various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Aaaaaaaaaand scene. No, silly person who actually might speak French and/or have some familiarity with Charlie Hebdo, your assertions that it was an anti-racist newspaper that fought for a Palestinian state and against American hegemony and for the rights of Muslim immigrants in France is not just WRONG but INADMISSABLE, because really what those disreputable dead people wanted to do was to extend the French/American colonialism that they, uh, opposed constantly.
This is embarrassing on a basic level of cognition, let alone morality. People who care deeply about global free speech won't soon forget that a collection of prestigious American authors chose the occasion of a mass murder to advocate illiberal principles and slander the dead.