Should Charlie Hebdo get an award?

PEN wants to give Charlie Hebdo its “freedom of expression courage” award.  This has provoked an outcry from many writers. PEN isn’t backing down, saying that they reject the “assassin’s veto”.

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.

Fire in a crowded theater: The Dark Knight, Plato, and censorship

Oddly, on the day of the Aurora tragedy I listened to a lecture about censorship, as advocated by Plato in The Republic.  (Here‘s the Open Yale course I’ve been listening to.  It’s good!)  It’s interesting that one of the foundational documents of Western civilization advocates strict government censorship of poetry and drama, for the good of the person and the benefit of the state.  Here is Plato (in the voice of Socrates) in Book X:

Therefore, Glaucon, I said, whenever you meet with any of the eulogists of Homer declaring that he has been the educator of Hellas, and that he is profitable for education and for the ordering of human things, and that you should take him up again and again and get to know him and regulate your whole life according to him, we may love and honour those who say these things–they are excellent people, as far as their lights extend; and we are ready to acknowledge that Homer is the greatest of poets and first of tragedy writers; but we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.

In earlier books he raises the issue in the context of educating the young who will be rulers of the state.

As a nation, we have free speech built into our DNA. As a writer, I have no wish for my work to be censored (or, worse, forbidden).  As a parent, though, I’m awfully glad that I’m past the time when I had to worry about whether my kids would be allowed to watch R-rated movies or play M-rated games or listen to songs with explicit lyrics.  It was exhausting!

There aren’t any good answers here — it’s easy enough to see the flaws in Plato’s strategy, especially in a state with 300 million citizens.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep thinking about it.  And we need to recognize the downside of the choices we have made as a society.

I’m obviously not the target for the Batman movies.  I saw The Dark Knight at home on my little TV, and to me the violence just seemed over the top and stupid.  But I could imagine the impact of the experience on the big screen.  And once upon a time I was young enough to spend my time fantasizing about living in the worlds I experienced in movies and novels.  We know nothing about the shooter’s motives (or even if he had any), but it looks like the world of The Dark Knight was the one he chose to inhabit.  And that’s pretty scary.