Why standing up for outrageous speech matters
How about “I am Peshawar?” On Dec. 16, Taliban dirtbags stormed a school there and killed 145 people, 132 of them children.
I actually have more in common — and would argue that most of us do — with those in Pakistan who suffered loss than I do with the slain satirists and their colleagues at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Americans, as did people even in dangerous Pakistan, believe our schools to be mostly safe — which is why incidents like Columbine and Sandy Hook so offend us.
While I am a journalist and an advocate of free speech, no publication I have worked for in my career has published borderline pornographic cartoons designed specifically to flip off religious extremists known to murder some it deems to be blasphemers.
Americans for the most part, including American journalists who last week declared “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), did not have an outpouring of outrage and solidarity over the deaths of scores of innocent children who simply were going to school in Peshawar.
We shrug about most terror attacks, such as the latest outrage, Boko Haram’s use of a young Nigerian girl for a suicide attack. Perhaps we must look away because it is so awful and so common. But the fact that the victims last week were Western journalists does not make what happened in Paris worse than the range of terrorist attacks around the world, nor is it a 9/11 moment. It is a data point on a crowded graph of Islamic extremism.
It was an attack on freedom of expression, and journalists rose up as the defenders of that liberty. That’s important, and it’s useful to contemplate how we value that freedom in our society, from the provocateurs to small-town journalists.
Let’s understand what Charlie Hebdo is. It is intentionally outrageous. It ridicules powerful institutions, including religions and, because someone needs to do it, particularly fundamentalist Islam that is violently hostile to civilization.
Perhaps the closest things to Charlie Hebdo in popular U.S. culture are “South Park” and Bill Maher. Maher, an atheist comedian whose schtick routinely includes railing against religion in general, lately has taken up sharp criticism of Islam.
“South Park,” which has skewered Mormonism and Christian Science and plainly blasphemed Jesus, was even censored by Comedy Central when it sought to depict Mohammed after Dutch cartoonists were threatened with death for their work in 2006.
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists knew they were provoking murderers. The weekly magazine’s offices were firebombed in 2011 after an issue in which it named the prophet Mohammed editor in chief and changed its name to “Sharia Hebdo.” The cartoonists continued to depict Mohammed — which in itself angers the extremists — in intentionally offensive ways.
Cartoon commentary has a tradition of being extreme and has a particular ability to irritate and offend. We get calls and letters here occasionally about syndicated cartoons we run.
It is important, as the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote last week, to stand up for even disagreeable speech.
Some disagreeable speech and outrageous imagery can suggest truths that most of us are too polite to express. And sometimes being polite is the wrong approach.
We want to be careful and fair in our content. But an extremism has been bred that knows no civil bounds, such as the murder of 132 children or strapping explosives to a young girl and sending her into a market.
Charlie Hebdo’s outrageous cartoons, if nothing else, provoked the terrorist idiots to further show the world what barbarians they are. Of course they are OK with that.
It also shows why it is important to resist even small incursions against free speech, why it is important to advocate for openness in government at all levels to protect our freedoms. It’s why it’s important that stupid movies such as “The Interview” be shown (to someone else, please) and that no one should back down to cyberterrorists. Or firebombers.
In everyday life for the vast majority of Americans, a greater danger than terrorism is that we suffer both from ostrich-like aversion to the world’s many horrors, such as the attack at Peshawar, paired with rising civil ignorance — people unaware of their rights and why their rights matter.
Last week, Kirby Delauter, an elected member of the Frederick County Council in Maryland, threatened to sue the local newspaper if it used his name without his permission. It prompted a social media firestorm and led to a brilliant editorial (including a clever anagram) in the Frederick News-Post, the newspaper that Kirby Delauter threatened.
After #kirbydelauter suffered nearly a full day of infamy, he apologized. But that any American, let alone an elected official, would be so ignorant of the First Amendment is deeply troubling. Many among us don’t know our rights or how our government works.
That ignorance sets us up both to believe things that aren’t true and to not pay attention to what government and other institutions of power are doing. That clears the way for abuse of those rights.
We are not immune from extremism and we are not isolated. We are, even in small mountain towns, citizens of a dangerous and vulnerable world. We are Peshawar, and we must protect our freedoms.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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