My son lives in the Middle East, and he was baffled by the “Je Suis Charlie” thing. Why isn’t the West protesting the many courageous Muslim bloggers and journalists being persecuted by autocratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere? Well, fair enough, I’m happy if they get awards too. But I’m a part of the West, and free speech is one of the things the West does right. As a writer, that matters to me.
Nowadays, the “most helpful” review of my novel Senator on Barnes & Noble is a one-star review complaining that it used the Lord’s name in vain multiple times at the beginning, so the anonymous reviewer read no further. Again, fair enough. Readers who don’t approve of using the Lord’s name in vain have been warned. But nowadays I could easily imagine a world where offending religious people like my anonymous reviewer would be illegal (especially in Europe); or, where corporations like Barnes & Noble would decline to sell books that contained certain words or phrases deemed offensive to a religion. (Does Barnes & Noble sell books that contain imagines of Mohammed? I have no idea.)
I have this sense that conventional liberalism has lots its way over this issue–or at least, it’s too vexing an issue for liberals to respond to it coherently. What happens when two core liberal values–diversity and freedom of speech–collide? When blacks on campus claim they are the victims of hate speech? When Muslims claim they have been scapegoated for the actions of a few crazy terrorists? Do we have to parse all of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to determine if the magazine is worthy of an award?
Here’s a paragraph from the PEN statement that I like very much:
The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats. There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.
Good for them.