As I waited for the subway today, I realized something that might explain why I feel so strongly about the Charlie Hebdo/PEN discussion. I'm going to write a few more posts dealing with particular issues, and some of those posts will try to map things out in detail. This is a higher-level post that tries to use an analogy to draw out the key issues.
In Northern Ireland, there is an institution called the Orange Order
, a sort of social/cultural organization representing Northern Ireland's Protestant community. Under the auspices of the Orange Order, Protestants periodically hold marches, most notably on July 12
. Why July 12? That is the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, in which Protestant William of Orange (hence the name) defeated Catholic James II. The history is very complicated and I'm no expert on it, but suffice it to say that William's victory helped ensure that British rule in Ireland would continue for more than two centuries, a time period marked by brutal oppression, the Great Famine, and cultural displacement, including the near-total elimination of the Irish language. And a time period dominated by the Protestant "ascendency" in Ireland, which is to say, political and economic supremacy. So in other words, today the battle is celebrated by the Protestants and much-regretted by the Catholics. And remember, we are talking about Northern Ireland, which to this day is ruled by the United Kingdom. The Irish achieved limited self-governance in 1922 and complete independence in 1937. But that was the Republic of Ireland. In the North, British rule has never ended. So for the Catholics in Northern Ireland, you can turn that "two centuries" of British rule into "three centuries, and counting."
Now what's interesting is that the Orangemen specifically like to march through Catholic neighborhoods. They like to give their Catholic neighbors a little reminder of what happened in 1690, and of how things shook out after that. They bang drums and sing songs and generally do everything they can to make the Catholics feel humiliated and downtrodden. In past decades they were permitted to march where they liked. Today their free-speech rights are violated by the Parades Commission
, which puts limits on their ability to march through Catholic neighborhoods.
In real life, there is almost always violence accompanying these marches. Certainly rocks will be thrown, but petrol bombs (what Americans would call "Molotov cocktails") are also popular. You can get a flavor here
Now imagine, counterfactually, that during one of these marches, a large bomb goes off, killing twelve Orangemen. A Republican terrorist group takes "credit." (By "Republican" I mean that the group supports splitting from the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland. We can assume that the members of the terrorist group are Catholic, in terms of ethnic identity though not necessarily in terms of devout belief.) And then, the next year, the Orange Order marches again, despite renewed threats from the Republican terrorist group.
And so our analogy is this. PEN decides to honor the Orange Order for its courage in continuing to express itself in the face of terrorist violence. PEN invites me, James, to attend the ceremony. (Remember, this is a hypothetical, suspend your disbelief.) I decline to attend, specifically because PEN is honoring the Orange Order.
At this point, Alan and Caleb Crain and Robert McLiam Wilson would presumably lash out at me. And they would have a seemingly airtight case that my behavior is immoral. Consider the facts:
1. There is no question that when the Orangemen march, they are expressing freedom of expression, what in the U.S. we would call "First Amendment rights."
2. There is no question that they are running grave risks to do so. Not only could they die in a large-scale attack like the bombing that killed 12 of them, they could also be injured or killed in the more ordinary violence that they encounter when they march through Catholic neighborhoods.
3. If they hadn't marched, they would have "let the terrorists win." But they did march—courageously.
4. As Caleb Crain might point out, if you take the time to understand their politics, you will find that there is no evidence whatsoever that they are racist. Northern Ireland is 98.2% white, and (as far as I know) the Orangemen have no argument with the country's non-white residents as such.
5. Even if they're not racists, the Orangemen might seem like complete assholes. But to reach that judgment, you would have to have a deep understanding of North Irish history, culture, politics, etc. Since I (James) don't have that understanding, I'm not entitled to form an opinion about the Orangemen. Anyway, it's important to note that alongside their Catholic-bashing, the Orangemen stand up for all kinds of good things, like community involvement. And, not to cast aspersions on James's view of women, but it just so happens that abortion is legal in the United Kingdom, but not the Republic of Ireland. So if the Orangemen lose the fight, then a lot of North Irish women will be the victims.
6. It is true that the Orangemen go out of their way to offend Catholics. But that's the whole point! In a free country you should be permitted to offend. And a lot of their expression would have less meaning if it weren't for its offensiveness. (Lording it over the Catholics is a major reason they march in the first place. Take that away, and the expression loses its "punch.") Please note that the PEN award does not relate to the content
of the Orangemen's expression. Rather, the award relates purely to their courage in the face of violence
. And their physical courage is beyond question. And in this connection, note that the big thing the Orangemen want to accomplish is to remind the Catholics of the events of July 12, 1690. That is, they want to teach a history lesson (or at least, give a refresher course). I can picture the tweets. How can historical fact be offensive?!? What's next, does James want to get rid of history classes?!?!? We see the kind of scum we're dealing with here, with this anti-education James character.
7. So in "boycotting" the PEN award (note the etymology
), I am performing an immoral act. I am failing to honor a courageous group that isn't racist. And per Alan, in these circumstances I should be branded "immoral." Quod erat demonstrandum.
I suspect that Alan will say that the Orangemen are somehow worse than Charlie Hebdo, because their goal is to make Catholics feel bad. I wonder if Alan will then embrace the doctrine of the double effect
. By which I mean, there is little question that Charlie Hebdo set out to offend Muslims to the greatest extent possible—to a much greater extent than would be necessary to express the same ideas. But, as with the Orangemen, the offense is the point
. Without the offense, the expression loses its flavor. With the Orangemen, the offense is the goal. (Although, not entirely. The Orangemen do march through Protestant neighborhoods, too, where there is no one to offend. It's mixed, as reality always is.) With Charlie Hebdo, the offense is presumably instrumental: Charlie Hebdo wants to get attention and provoke outrage. (But again, not entirely. Are we really to believe that Charlie Hebdo never offended Muslims just for the sake of offending Muslims
? And isn't that exactly what the Orangemen do to Catholics?)
In any event the effect is much the same: to make Catholics (Muslims) feel humiliated and unwelcome in their own country. So we would need a doctrine like the doctrine of the double effect to separate the two.
I am not saying that Charlie Hebdo is evil. (I don't think the Orangemen are evil either.) I just don't think they're particularly deserving of being honored for their efforts to humiliate and degrade Muslims. I think they are (maybe unwittingly) joined in a continent-wide fight to alienate and radicalize Muslims. They didn't deserve to die. But not everyone who has a right to life (which is everyone) gets feted at literary galas. That honor should be reserved for people who aren't consciously making downtrodden people even more miserable, making the world a worse place.
(I almost forgot to mention: my ancestors were Irish Catholic. When they fled Ireland, they did it on the notorious "coffin ships
" that went to Canada during the Great Famine. (The ships to the U.S. were regulated and were therefore safer but marginally more expensive. If you were on a ship to Canada, it's because you were truly desperate.) When I see pictures of Orangemen I see people who like to celebrate my ancestors' misery, who like to shove it in our faces and remind us that we are shit. I wouldn't bomb them but I damn sure wouldn't be caught at a fucking party in their honor. And I'm several generations removed from the events in question. I can't imagine how Muslims feel when they're exposed to the same kind of humiliation on a daily basis.)
(And if Caleb Crain tried to shame me on Twitter for refusing to honor the Orangemen, and Alan took to the comments section of my blog to call me immoral, I would flip my shit.)