Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Strange Case of the Attack on the Charlie Hebdo Dissenters

My feeling that the world has gone mad continues to grow.  The latest evidence is that intelligent people seem to find this blog post by Dorian Lynskey not only non-disgusting, but compelling.  I will quote from the blog post (which is discussing the decision of several writers not to attend a PEN gala in honor of Charlie Hebdo):

Explanations have come in dribs and drabs. The longest, and worst, was published yesterday by Francine Prose — a former PEN President, no less. It opens with a classic case of the Liar’s But, where the whole paragraph preceding “but” is disingenuous blather: “tragic murders”, “nothing but sympathy”, “abhor censorship”, blah blah blah. This is the language of the politician, not the novelist, lacking both intellectual honesty and emotional truth. It’s only there to pay lip-service to the nine staff members murdered by Islamist gunmen on January 7 so that Prose can get on with the business of denigrating them.

I'd like to think that if I had Lynskey's remarkable mind-reading power, I would use it to live a life of dissipation in Las Vegas rather than exposing insidious freedom-haters like Francine Prose.  But heavy is the head that wears the crown, I suppose.  Lynskey is the one burdened with the responsibilities that come with the super-power, and he should do with it what he thinks is best.  (Lynskey isn't the only one with mind-reading powers.  Dave has divined that I think the Charlie Hebdo workers deserved to die.  This is an opinion I have kept so well-hidden that it remains hidden even from myself.)

Taking a step back, the logic seems to run like this.  The people who worked for Charlie Hebdo were unquestionably brave.  The PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award is intended precisely to honor bravery in exercising free speech.  Therefore there is no possible argument against giving the award to Charlie Hebdo.  Therefore the writers who "feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo"—that is, who don't plan to attend a gala in honor of the publication—must be motivated not by their stated reasons but by some sinister hatred of everything we hold dear.  "There must be something that has led them to throw a basic principle under the bus."  (I am not embellishing these quotations—Lynskey really did write that.  Again, this is the allegedly non-disgusting blog post that is being quoted approvingly by intelligent people on Twitter.)

So what are we to make of this logic?  I think the first question to struggle with is whether it is ever legitimate to say something like, "I defend his right to express his views, but I disagree with those views and I wish he wouldn't express them."  The consensus seems to be that this is an incoherent thing to say.  Jonathan Chait wrote, "The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice."  In other words, it is not enough to defend Charlie Hebdo's right to publish blasphemous (some might add:  racist) cartoons.  We must defend the blasphemy itself.

I think a simple example suffices to show why the consensus is wrong.  A few days ago President Nixon tweeted:  "I'm sure the writers who declined the PEN Award for association with 'Charlie Hebdo' sip their tea and soberly agree with NSPA vs. Skokie."  (He was referring to the Supreme Court decision permitting the National Socialist Party of America—the Nazis—to march through Skokie, Illinois, a town with a large Jewish population.)  The first reply to the tweet was:  "No one ever said, 'Je suis NSPA', though."  That is, it would seem to be possible to believe that Nazis have the right to express their views while at the same time despising those views, and even expressing your disapproval of them.  It turns out maybe you can defend the right without defending the practice, after all.

Having recognized this as a logical possibility, let's consider whether it might have any traction in this case.  Is it possible to believe that it was wrong to murder the employees of Charlie Hebdo while simultaneously declining to recognize the bravery of the publication?

I think so, and this is because "bravery" is not so simple a concept as its dictionary definition might suggest.  I don't think it makes much sense to deny that the people who worked for Charlie Hebdo were brave.  But we don't go around giving awards to everyone who demonstrates physical courage.  Dave acknowledged that the 9/11 hijackers were brave, but he stopped short of suggesting that they deserve to be awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award posthumously.  And I suspect this isn't just because their mode of expression was destructive.  The bravery that the hijackers displayed somehow doesn't seem praiseworthy.

And here we have the key to understanding the position of the dissenters.  Not all bravery is praiseworthy.  If you spend your career doing everything you can to make minorities feel unwelcome in your country, if you go out of your way to antagonize them, if your goal is to bring out the worst in people, then you certainly don't deserve to die, but it's hard to see how you deserve an award, either.

Now one can certainly dispute whether my previous paragraph accurately characterizes the work that Charlie Hebdo did.  But this would be an argument, with two sides, and that is precisely what the people who are attacking the dissenters are trying to avoid.  They've done it by preemptively discrediting the views of anyone who doesn't speak French.  They've done it by attributing hateful motives to the dissenters without evidence.  They've tried to delegitimize any discussion of the merits, and then they've used the alleged absence of meritorious disagreement to suggest that the dissenters must have ulterior motives.  (This reasoning, to borrow Dave's line, accomplishes the unlikely feat of being both elliptical and circular at the same time.)

All in all it's a disgusting display of irrationality and I think that its practitioners should feel a deep sense of shame.  It's fine to disagree with the dissenters.  But this insistence on attacking them rather than engaging with their arguments shows a lack of intellectual confidence and a strange craving for forced unanimity, the one thing Charlie Hebdo probably can't be accused of ever promoting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this misses something important.

If action X is offensive to group A. And you do action X and then group A is offended, you are a jerk.

If action X s offensive to group A, and group A is known to respond violently to action X. Then if action X is not occurring regularly, violence has won. A peaceful and liberal society simply cannot allow violence to win. It really ought to be morally obligatory to engage in action A and most people who don't decline because they are cowards (or because they don't understand the right game theoretic response to terrorism, but isn't lack of knowledge of game theory its own kind of cowardice).

We should not judge action A by how offensive it is, but but how its offensiveness fits into the the society.

7:55 AM  
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5:25 AM  

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