Not Just a Joke: Reflections on Free Speech, Violence and Mislabeled Heroism

Many years ago, when discussing the issue of hate speech and how it should be addressed on college campuses, my friend Paul Gallegos at Evergreen State College smiled and said, “Ya know, just because speech is free, doesn’t mean that it has to be worthless.” It’s a concept and a phrasing that has stuck with me for years. His deft appropriation of the double-meaning of “free” (both as liberty but also as a statement of non-existent value) was a stroke of genius, and one that has informed my understanding of these issues ever since. I am thinking about it again in the wake of recent events in France.

Following the horrific killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, much has been said by pundits and prolific purveyors of tweet: about fanatical interpretations of Islam, about free speech, about the importance of satire, and about religious profiling and the notion of collective blame. Some of this commentary has been helpful and instructive, while other iterations of it have been incendiary and useless. But through it all, and although I am most horrified by those right-wing voices who seek to use the tragedy as a way to stoke their well-cultivated Islamaphobia, I am also troubled by what seems to be a prominent if not dominant narrative among many a liberal. It is a narrative that posits the victims of this grotesque crime as high-minded truth-seekers worthy of praise and emulation, and even as heroes, perhaps martyrs for the cause of freedom and liberty.

It strikes me that we should be able to roundly condemn the senseless and barbaric murders of journalists while still managing to have a rational conversation about free speech, in which empty platitudes about heroism need play no part. For instance, I believe it is possible to agree that free speech is an essential value, and that journalists should have the right to say what they want—even to offend others—without then proceeding to act as though every utterance (just because people have a right to it) is therefore worth defending as to its substance, and that free speech protects one from being critiqued for the things one says.

What I mean is this: I have a right, I suppose, to stand in the middle of Times Square and shout racial slurs or insult peoples’ religions. I could, for instance, stand on a soapbox outside the TKTS booth and say things about the Prophet Mohammed or Jesus or Mary. I could call them all kinds of vile things, and all of it would be protected by the Constitution. And I surely should be able to do that without fear of being murdered for it. This last point in particular is so obvious as to be beyond debate, I would hope. But if I do this, whether in Times Square or in print, it makes me an asshole, and one who deserves to be labeled as such. Not a hero, but an asshole. And I don’t become a hero just because some of the people I happened to insult (and was trying to insult) end up being even bigger assholes than me, and so dangerous and unstable that they decide to hurt me. In that case I am simply the unlucky victim of a bigger and more evil asshole who was unsatisfied with the pen or keyboard as a weapon and decided to use something more deadly. Nothing more and nothing less.

People seem to confuse the principle of free speech with the idea that one’s speech should be protected from pushback; and while violent pushback is always wrong—always—I am more than a little uncomfortable with the idea that we should make heroes out of those whose job appears to have been insulting people they deemed inferior (whether because of culture or because they were just “silly superstitious” believers who deserve ridicule because Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher say so). I’m especially uncomfortable with the political canonization we’re expected to endorse for these satirists, because historically, satire has always been about barbs aimed at those who are more powerful than oneself (the elite, royalty, the dominant social, economic, political or religious group), rather than being aimed down the ladder at those with less power. In the old days, when the King would bring in the jester or the royal fool to tell jokes and entertain the nobility, the court comic didn’t spend 20 minutes doing “can you believe how bad those peasants smell” jokes; rather, he told jokes at the expense of the nobility. The King and his royal prerogatives were the target of ridicule.

So whereas it would be legitimate satire for Muslims to satirize their own extremists in countries where Muslims hold power (and this is done by the way, more than most of us realize), in France, satire aimed at Muslims, who are the targets of organized attempts to restrict their rights and even their presence in the country, is not brave; it’s piling on. Likewise, for Jews to satirize Palestinians in Israel would be asshole behavior, while satirizing the nation’s Jewish religious leaders who have such outsized influence on state politics would be the very definition of legitimate satire. In the U.S., where Christians hold the bulk of political and economic power, satirizing the religious right is quite different from satirizing Muslims who are being targeted in regular hate crimes and who are facing communities trying to block them from having mosques in which to worship.

As an analogy, I find tedious and cringe-worthy the never-ending stream of sitcoms that revolve around a married couple where the husband is sorta stupid and child-like and bumbling, and his wife is always rolling her eyes and making fun of him, but they love each other and it all works out in the end. And yet, however ridiculous I think this formula is—and however much as a man and husband I think it presents an absurd, one-dimensional picture of those things I happen to be—it really would be different and a whole lot worse, to have those sitcoms revolve around a husband who constantly demeans or pokes fun at his ditzy wife. And ya know why? Because patriarchy, that’s why. The social context within which humor takes place matters. It’s why telling jokes about rich people really is different than rhetorically ganging up on the poor with jokes about homelessness and government cheese.

In short, power dynamics really do make a difference. To satirize people who are the targets of institutionalized violence (whether for religious or racial or cultural or linguistic or sexual or gendered reasons) is not brave. It’s sort of shitty, in fact. Should it be protected legally? Sure. Should those who do it be killed or punished in any way? Of course not. But should we hold them up as exemplars of who we want to be, all the while ignoring how the exercise of their freedom, without any sense of responsibility to the common good, actually feeds acrimony and violence on all sides? I think not. And I fear that if we fail to separate the principle of free speech from those who hide behind its cloak—often simply to justify their own dickishness—we’ll only make the chasms between all peoples greater.

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