14 January 2015

Freedom of speech in France: L'Etat, c'est Charlie

Eyebrows were raised around the world when news spread today that French authorities had arrested more than fifty people recently, not for conspiring to commit terrorism, but for speaking, writing or posting in favor of it -- or for seeming to do so. The most high-profile case involves a famous comedian and provocateur, notorious for his apparent anti-semitism, on the flimsy pretext, or so it seems from reports outside France, of a post in which he wrote that he felt like "Charlie Coulibaly." At my first glance, that looks like an expression of mixed feelings, identifying both with the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and with Amedy Coulibaly, the avowed ally of last week's mass-murderers who killed a police officer and four hostages before the gendarmes got him. He could have identified both with the comic's impulse to provoke and the downtrodden's impulse to lash out at presumed superiority. Maybe the comedian said more than that, but that alone seems to have been sufficient to get him detained as a terrorist sympathizer. Others have been arrested, presumably, for saying they approved of the Paris massacre for one reason or another. The arrests are being criticized in a number of places. Here's a predictable yet arguably admirable comment from the libertarian Reason website, for instance. Elsewhere, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's collaborator, is particularly infuriated by the new arrests. Believing the comedian to have been targeted for his anti-semitism, Greenwald sees the arrests as further proof of a double-standard prevailing in France and the hypocrisy of Charlie Hebdo's new fans. Greenwald believes that nations like France have two choices: they should treat offenses to Islam the same way they currently treat expressions of anti-semitism, or they should level the playing field the other way by placing no restrictions on anti-semitism or anything else perceived as hate speech. So long as hate speech is defined and prosecuted selectively, he argues, any laws against such speech simply express the preferences and biases of one group of people. He judges the "je suis Charlie" phenomenon by the same standard, taking the relative lack of outrage in France over the arrests as preliminary proof that the French aren't interested in free speech as such as much as they're interested in preserving their right to insult Muslims while reserving their right to treat other forms of bigotry differently.

Everyone seems caught in a blur of categories. What did Charlie Hebdo stand for? What does the French government stand against? What are people defending or affirming when they say "je suis Charlie?" Greenwald seems to want us to place caricatures of Muhammad in the same category as slurs against entire peoples -- the argument presumably being that Muslims feel the same sort of hurt on seeing such caricatures of a historical person as other groups feel when they're slurred as groups. But he always leaves open the option to go the other way, adopting an indifference to the hurt feelings of Jews, blacks or others equal to the indifference we insist upon when Muslim feelings are hurt. Either way, he won't be satisfied, it seems, until everyone shows equal sensitivity and solicitude to the feelings of Jews and the feelings of Muslims. If we can manage that while retaining a right to prefer one group to another intellectually or politically -- or to dismiss both, along with Christians, as obstacles to human progress -- then it's not an unreasonable request. As for the recent arrests in France, they do seem hypocritical on an intellectual level, at least to this outsider, because my impression had been that what the cartoonists died for and their mourners marched for above all was not the right to criticize or even to right to mock but the right to provoke. The lesson of the Paris massacre, it seemed, was that the right of one person to provoke another by challenging him at one of his most sensitive points trumped any right of reprisal the one provoked might claim. Nothing can be more provocative in France this week than to say you endorse the Paris massacre -- unless you say there ought to be another after the newest Charlie Hebdo came out with its crying-Muhammad cover. Provocation as a category can cover a lot of ground, both legal and illegal, and I don't really want to indulge in the American habit of judging from a presumption of perfect expertise how other countries regulate expression. But if millions around the world really believe in a universal human right to insult others without consequences, then it's the French government that's guilty of insulting their sensibilities this week.

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