Freedom Not to Speak

I haven’t said anything until now about the Parisian tragedy, the massacre of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. I continue to stand amazed at the level of inhumanity displayed by groups such as ISIL and al Qaida, who is likely to have been responsible for the deaths of the satirists, and I mourn for both their families and friends, as I do for those of any victims of senseless violence. I haven’t said anything because there is nothing for me to add to the conversation about that.

What disturbs me, though, is the automatic jump to invoke freedom of speech in the discussion. I don’t know the nuances of the French definition of “free speech,” or what laws protect whom, but I do know about our version. And I know the legal definitions of libel and slander, two words that I doubt members of our Congress can spell, much less define.

I’m pretty sure too that the people I “hear” screaming about freedom of speech every time there’s a backlash for something said or written that offends someone else have never bothered to read the First Amendment. In case I’m right, I present it herewith.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If you were paying attention in English class, you would know that an alternative format for the text of the First Amendment would be as follows:

Congress shall make no law…

  1. respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or
  2. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or
  3. [abridging] the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Congress shall make no law…Congress shall make no law…Congress shall make no law…

Chicken-sandwich maker Dan Cathy’s freedom of speech was in no way abridged when he answered a question about anti-gay groups he’d donated money to. No law made by Congress (which is the only test) threatened to imprison him on the basis of giving the interview and answering the question.

Rush Limbaugh’s freedom of speech wasn’t abridged when he called a young woman a slut on national radio and thereafter lost a host of sponsors for his radio show. No law made by Congress (which is the only test) threatened to imprison him for saying what he said, nor did one influence corporate America.

So when I hear the justifiable outrage for the murders of these French men, the argument that they were martyred because of their exercising freedom of speech falls flat. They were murdered because murderers wanted to cause French Muslims and non-Muslims to rise up against each other, hoping to drag peace-loving Muslims down to the gutter with them. It had nothing to do with cartoons and nothing to do with freedom of speech. It’s worth saying that any murdered person has had his freedom of speech abridged.

Yes, the First Amendment protects our right to say whatever we like, but it doesn’t protect us from the judgment of others for having said it. The First Amendment protects our right to prove ourselves to be verbal assholes without any threat of being arrested for being assholes, but it doesn’t protect us from the social consequences of being assholes. The First Amendment protects my right to speak here, to put whatever I think on Facebook or LinkedIn or some other social media site without worrying about someone from the government knocking on my door to take me away. But it doesn’t protect me from being “unfriended” or from the the impact of what I say if I should ever explicitly set out to offend someone.

I happen to love most political cartoonists—Mike Luckovich of the AJC has been a favorite of mine for years, and still is. Like what I consider a good preacher on Sunday is hired to do, I never know from cartoon to cartoon if he will have championed my opinion or surreptitiously slid in the knife, piercing my ignorant defenses, in the midst of my laughter. I’ve winced more than a few times, but it was wincing that made me think through my position on something, not to find a gun and hunt Mike down or maliciously attack his reputation with the intent of his losing his job, which is, by the way, one of the “tests” of whether when you publish something incendiary about another, it qualifies as libel or slander.

I’ve looked at some of what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo have published. In my experience, Mike Luckovich wouldn’t stoop to it. The point is that Charlie Hebdo wasn’t blocked from publishing their cartoons and there was no threat of jailing or even a civil suit. They were a struggling satirical magazine whose circulation was shrinking, and having seen some of their stuff, I can understand. The massacre in Paris wasn’t about their exercise of freedom of speech or even satire. It was about raging jihadists for whom any life is dispensable, including their own, in service of a cause. They were simply the focal point for insanity. This isn’t about Charlie Hebdo any more than the World Trade Center attack was about the cuisine of the restaurant at the top. This is about al Qaida and terrorism.

But, lest we walk around with our noses in the air, transforming ourselves into adolescent blobs incapable of self-examination, we should remember that there was once a time in America when it was widely understood that it was evidence of ignorance, of incivility, of low upbringing to call another person’s daughter a slut or to call a person of a different racial or ethnic background a “whop” or a “spic” or that infamous “N” word in public, much less broadcast it to the heavens. There was a time when, at least by my way of thinking, it was understood by people still in touch with the inherent goodness of humans that a relationship with Jesus is a private affair, and that it is nobody else’s business to define or oversee, much less address in political cartoons. There was a time when, all other things aside, true freedom-loving patriots who understood the definition of equality resisted the temptation to mock another citizen for any reason, much less the religious figurehead of a tradition other than their own. It was a matter of respect, of decency, of honesty, not driven by political correctness or bravado or to boost newspaper circulation. It was the character of the speaker that came into question, not the subject of the rant.

I am not naive enough to think that America has ever been perfect, nor do I think we were ever a shining city on a hill, and I think we should take care with that moniker. I have a sneaking feeling that what Jesus meant when he talked about salt and light had nothing to do with self-described and unexamined superiority. American bravado these days is sadly more like the story of the emperor with no clothes. But that’s a topic for a different day.

As much as I am truly saddened by the deaths of those who went to work on Wednesday in Paris to never go home again, and as much as I continue to be struck dumb at the brutality of it all, I can’t help but wonder if Charlie Hebdo achieved what they set out to. Unlike Bill Maher, who apparently thinks freedom of speech is about the right to insult anyone and anything, I can’t help but wonder what possible good, what possible result the cartoonists expected to come of their cartoons, which Muhammed aside, had no obvious point except to insult.

Again, I make no excuse for what happened. I’m in no way saying that the cartoonists deserved what they got, anymore than on the basis of the very limited information I have, that Michael Brown deserved to be shot six times for stealing cigarillos and threatening a store owner. But the two things are unrelated. Michael Brown wasn’t shot over cigarillos. And Charlie Hebdo wasn’t shot because their publication was up for an award.

If I’m honest, I frankly don’t see a lot of difference between cartoons of the prophet Muhammed depicted in sexual orgy and the act of painting a swastika on a synagogue on Yom Kippur or burning a cross in the literal or figurative yards of black people or homosexuals. And yet those things still happen, even today, and we pretend that all is well with our souls.

Charlie Hebdo’s folks are murder victims, some of whose lives were snuffed out way too early. They were a conveniently visible focal point for an attack on the French by people who’ve lost touch with their own humanity, but they aren’t heroes anymore than Rush Limbaugh or Dan Cathy or Bill Maher.

Just because we’re free to speak doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think before we do. And perhaps, in this moment, we should consider that, having examined the profanity of what we might think in a moment of anger or fear, we are also free to choose to say nothing at all.


Mark 7:15

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