The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

'The blasphemy we need'


A free society can also be a polite one. The right to say offensive and scurrilous things need not be exercised. ne can defend the right to say such things without also defending the practice. And yet, as Ross Douthat observes, when such speech is threatened—whether such threats come from the state or fanatical murderous thugs—there is a time to defend the practice.

in a cultural and political vacuum, it would be okay to think that some of the images (anti-Islamic and otherwise) that Charlie Hebdo regularly published, especially those chosen entirely for their shock value, contributed little enough to public discussion that the world would not suffer from their absence.

But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it's the kind that clearly serves a free society's greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it's something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn't really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn't depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it's okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that's when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed. . . .

In a different context, a context where the cartoons and other provocations only inspired angry press releases and furious blog comments, I might sympathize with the FT's Tony Barber when he writes that publications like Hebdo "purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid." (If all you have to fear is a religious group's fax machine, what you're doing might not be as truth-to-power-ish as you think.) But if publishing something might get you slaughtered and you publish it anyway, by definition you are striking a blow for freedom, and that's precisely the context when you need your fellow citizens to set aside their squeamishness and rise to your defense.

Matthew Yglesias also makes the point that politinesss and free expression may coexist under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances.

Viewed in a vacuum, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (or the Danish ones that preceded it) are hardly worthy of a stirring defense. They offer few ideas of value, contribute little to any important debates, and the world would likely have been a better place had everyone just been more polite in the first place.

But in the context of a world where publishers of cartoons mocking Mohammed have been threatened, harassed, and even killed, things look different.

Images that were once not much more than shock for its own sake now stand for something—for the legal right to blaspheme and to give offense. Unforgivable acts of slaughter imbue merely rude acts of publication with a glittering nobility. To blaspheme the Prophet transforms the publication of these cartoons from a pointless act to a courageous and even necessary one, while the observation that the world would do well without such provocations becomes a form of appeasement. And the infection quickly spreads.

Charlie Hebdo's cartoons sit ill with me, but the AP's decision to delete photos that displaythem sits even worse. When The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney observed that the AP's actions were contradicted by the organization's continued sale of an image of Andres Serrano's (in)famous "Piss Christ" sculpture, they responded by pulling the "Piss Christ" image, which is a further step into the illiberal darkness.

(Of course, no one was ever killed for showing an image of "Piss Christ.")

This is not a new point. It was made in a 2006 Chritsopher Hitchens column (reposted this week by Slate and cited 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. (emphasis added by Douthat)

Douthat concludes:

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.