By the time the PEN writers' organization gave its Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo magazine last night more than 200 writers had signed a statement dissociating themselves from the event. The protesters, as noted in an earlier post, believe that PEN goes too far by actually rewarding the controversial cartoon paper, much of whose staff were murdered by religious fanatics earlier this year, for its deliberately offensive content. Read a comment thread on the latest coverage and you'll see that the controversy continues and is sure to endure. The problem is that the different schools of thought involved are talking past one another. All seem to have valid points, but these seem irreconcilable. For starters, the protester's baseline argument is entirely valid. They claim to still support Charlie's right to "expression that violates the acceptable," but they rightly claim that they aren't obliged to endorse the content of that expression. The bone of contention is the perception that a "Freedom of Expression Courage" award implicitly endorses that content. It may seem self-evident that PEN was honoring the French paper for its courage first and foremost, but the protesters assume that any sort of award takes PEN beyond a defensibly defensive, value-free position and encourages expression -- the mockery of Muslims -- that does harm presumably outweighing the benefits of free speech. Critics of PEN return constantly to the point that Muslims in France are mostly poor and oppressed, their assumption being that mockery of their religion only exacerbates their sense of oppression. Charlie Hebdo and its new fans are accused of "punching down" by people who can see no good reason to do that -- to satirize the poor or the strangers in our midst -- instead of figuratively punching up by "speaking truth to power." To the extent that violence is power, Charlie has done just that, and my understanding is that the magazine mocks the establishment, including the majority religion, far more often than it mocks Muhammad or Muslims in general. None of this will satisfy those whose first demand seems to be that the poor, the outsiders, the downtrodden, get respect. A demand for unconditional respect is a key feature of all the movements that fall under the rubric "political correctness," and the politically correct feeling about Charlie Hebdo seems to be that the magazine unacceptably denies respect to France's Muslims. None of the protesters against PEN consider that a capital offense, obviously, but they are offended on behalf of the presumed silent majority of devout but nonviolent Muslims.
Now for the other side of the coin. If critics of Charlie say you can't honor the magazine without endorsing something unworthy, critics of the critics reply that you can't criticize Charlie without implicitly asserting that it shouldn't -- and no one should -- make cartoons of Muhammad. From this perspective, to protest the PEN award is to beg the question: should we never caricature the Prophet? Must everyone on Earth -- or at least in France -- respect the taboos of Muslims? And if so, is that because they're the wretched of the earth, and therefore shouldn't have insults added to injuries, or because global comity requires us all to respect a demand essential to this Other's identity? It certainly can't be because Muslims might kill cartoonists. But I suspect the critics would rather duck this question and argue instead that freedom of expression should justify itself by finding better things to do. That there are better things to do than mock Muhammad is indisputable, but I'm not sure we want to judge freedom of expression by such a utilitarian standard. In the end, all the critics are left with is a feeling that a people they deem oppressed doesn't deserve to have its feelings hurt. That sounds to me like someone saying the poor are always right, or at least never wrong. Then the cynic in me says that if the poor were always right they wouldn't be poor. An idealist in me instantly rebels at that thought, though I'm not exactly sure why, and I suspect that people on both sides of the Charlie Hebdo controversy are undergoing similar internal conflicts. For what it's worth, I suspect that the perpetrators of the Charlie massacre did not.