January 7, 2015

An uncomfortable virtue

As you are probably aware, earlier today the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was savagely attacked, leaving twelve dead. In the wake of this tragedy, countless authorities, artists, and leaders have voiced their support of the newspaper, France, and the virtue of free speech.

Free speech is one of the most uncomfortable virtues I can imagine. It’s an “all or nothing” virtue: you either have free speech, or you don’t. There isn’t some speech that is allowed to be free, and some that is not. If you practice this version of free speech, then that speech is, by default, not free.

This isn’t quite like the virtue of charity, which simply encourages empathy and giving: charity, at its heart, is a transactional virtue, in which those with power freely share it with others. When you share your power, that doesn’t make you powerless. You’re still in a comfortable position at the end of it.

Free speech is much harder to practice. It brings with it vulnerability. To allow free speech is to allow others to attack you. To allow free speech is to allow instability and doubt. To allow free speech is to make yourself powerless before the words of others.

And this is, I would argue, a good thing, on the whole. Doubt is another uncomfortable virtue: we like to doubt others, but hate it when others doubt ourselves. But it is good to doubt authorities, to be free to disrespect them and treat them like any other person: it’s often difficult to critique a nation or an office, but if you’re free to lampoon them as you please, suddenly it’s much easier to see through the haze of grandeur and the panic of the circumstances and bring policy and positions into question.

Democracy itself, I would say, is founded upon doubt. It allows its citizens to voice their doubt about their government’s actions during as many stages of that action as possible. (Or it should, at least.)

This would not be possible without free speech. To be moral is to doubt one’s self; in order to doubt, one must have free speech; and when one has free speech, one opens one’s self up to hearing all kinds of things one might find inconvenient, upsetting, and provocative.

But just because something can provoke doesn’t mean it should be banned. If you maintain true free speech, you punish the actions, not the words or images that provoked them, or could provoke more.

So I completely and utterly support the freedoms of Charlie Hebdo, and what they do, even if I don’t really find some of their covers very funny, or if I find some of their positions to be callous. That’s part of the package.

But at the same time, it’s worth remembering that when leaders feared violence from pro-Palestinian protests during the Gaza assault, the French government chose to ban them in Paris altogether.

This is, of course, a tremendously complicated issue, fraught with history – but this article on the same issue ends in a line I finds to be darkly amusing:

Authorized rallies and protests took place in cities outside the French capital with no reports of serious violence.

Ah, “authorized” rallies and protests. What a phenomenally complicated idea.

This is the problem with free speech: free speech itself is not complicated at all – you have it for everyone, or you do not. The issues that it touches upon, however, are almost always tremendously complicated, leading to phrases like, “free speech, yes, but not in these circumstances,” or “free speech, yes, but right now the speech of these particular people is more valuable than these.”

Personally, I find extremism of nearly all stripes to be distasteful, and perhaps I find religious extremism itself to be particularly distasteful. But I won’t act or support any action that infringes upon anyone’s ability to voice their extremism, no matter how ugly it is – even if that religious extremism is coming from the mouths of the leadership of my own nation.

It’s uncomfortable for me to do this, certainly, and perhaps it’s dangerous: people could say something that provokes another person to do harm.

But those are the breaks, unfortunately. I’d rather allow in doubt – doubt that, perhaps, could make people rethink their violent intents – than eliminate it altogether.

On the whole, people like free speech. They will fanatically protect it. They cherish and will protect the free speech of others.

Or at least, most will, right up until it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable for them to do so.