April 28, 2015

Give 'em the damn award.

So PEN is going to give a "freedom of expression courage award" to Charlie Hebdo, to be accepted by one of the few CH staff left alive. Six writers, including the novelists Peter Carey and Francine Prose, have withdrawn from the event in protest, each offering "I support free speech but..." objections.

When I heard about it yesterday I face-posted this with a link:

Awards are dumb, but to oppose the "assassin's veto" only for things you like or approve of is no opposition to it at all, and it's a curious view for a writer to take.
Salman Rushdie, who has obvious standing from which to comment on this matter, put it more strongly:
The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.
He added: "I hope nobody comes after them."

Now Francine Prose has written an essay fleshing out her reasons for withdrawing. She's a great writer (whom I admire very much) and her argument is rhetorically forceful, but it hasn't managed to sway me, and my initial response still stands: this "I support free speech but..." posture is quite a curious attitude for a writer, of all people, to take. Not just because, as Rushdie says, the guns could well be turned on her or someone she likes in the future; but also because the principle and ideal of free speech is not contingent on approval of the content of the speech or the character of the speaker. If it were, it would be no principle at all. And the fact that all sorts of smart people don't seem to notice this, or worse, don't seem to mind all that much, is, as I say, rather curious and in fact a bit frightening, in an "I weep for the children" kind of way.

Prose's essay contains a reductio ad absurdum: we allow the Nazis to march at Skokie but we don't give them an award. Pace Glenn Greenwald, the problem with this is not that it literally and straightforwardly likens Charlie Hebdo to neo-Nazis (it doesn't.) It's that it identifies the wrong "hero" in the analogy. Of course the neo-Nazis wouldn't deserve a freedom of speech award. But the ACLU and others who supported the case? They deserve a great big huge honkin' massive award for defending the principle of free speech, despite the (obviously justified) near-universal disgust for the content and the speakers. It's the challenging cases like this that test our principles. We have to stand for them, or they wither away. Saying "I support free speech but..." is a dead giveaway that: no, actually, I don't think you really do, in fact. Rushdie and PEN deserve a great deal of credit for sticking to their guns on this. They're right, and Prose et al. are wrong.

But this gets to another more general matter, which is the attitude toward free speech of people in my own cultural reference group (blue state urban well heeled stuff-white-people-like San Francisco types who self-flatteringly like to call ourselves "liberals" from time to time.) Basically, we tend to be a lot like Francine Prose's essay when it comes to free speech. Our support for it tends to be rather... "soft." And by that I mean: grudging, equivocal, contingent -- in essence, it kind of seems like we don't really mean it. I notice it whenever this topic comes up in social media and I'm stupid enough to argue about it there (and I'm sure it'll come up if I ever post this, in which case I'll probably be stupid enough to argue about it all over again.) Of course I'm in favor of free speech, but... the line describing what "free speech" means tends to be drawn very tightly and narrowly, with manifold exceptions and caveats that take the ideal of "disagree with what you have to say but defend to the death your right to say it" and poke it full of so many holes that pretty much anything can get through.

Two tacks stand out. One might be called legalistic: the notion that "free speech" has no intelligible meaning outside the bounds of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. If the Constitution doesn't literally prohibit it, it cannot, by definition, be an encroachment on, nor in fact have anything whatsoever to do with, free speech. And, in fact, if you say "free speech" when you mean anything other than speech protected by the First Amendment you're obviously an ignorant birdbrain. So, problem solved, next topic.

This is manifestly absurd to me, for a host of reasons, but people argue the case so fervently that I have to assume they must genuinely disagree with me, crazy as that may seem. (I think this, perhaps, originated as a displacement whereby the argument that the First Amendment only protects speech from government suppression -- quite obviously true, and often necessary to point out -- is applied unreflectively to the greater notion of freedom of expression. This then has become reified into a token that can be played without regard to whether it literally applies, as in, say, the question of freedom of expression in other countries, the Rushdie fatwa, or in cases where speech is suppressed or punished by some other means than the government literally sending in tanks or rounding up dissidents and the like.)

The other tack is related but much broader and more worrying, in part because it is, unlike the legalistic one, literally true. "Speech has consequences," it goes. Of course, you're free to say anything you like, but if it doesn't pass muster prepare for punishment. This is brought up when the subject is social media campaigns to get this or that person, say, fired for expressing an unpopular opinion. Of course it is quite true that speech, like everything else, has consequences. And there's no law, per se, against trying to organize mass harassment campaigns to get someone fired for holding an unfavored opinion. Nor should there be, unsettling though it often is in practice: the remedy for speech you don't like is more speech, and social pressure of that kind falls into that category. But that doesn't mean it doesn't, nonetheless, bear on the issue of freedom of expression, and it certainly doesn't mean it's a good idea. Tolerance is a two way street. You voluntarily allow people the freedom to express opinions with which you disagree because you realize there may come a time when you will want to expect the same from them in return. It's a moral ideal and it can be hard to live up to, but I don't think you can truly claim to be in favor of free speech if you don't accept and aren't willing to defend it. Tolerance only for things you like is not tolerance, but rather its opposite.

I see these two tacks, the legalistic and the social, as complementary attempts to make a kind of "end run" around tolerance. (Always in a good cause, of course -- so many unsavory things have been visited upon the world by well-meaning people in a good cause.) But the question arises, then: why do they do it? I think it has to be because they really do feel that some speech should be suppressed and punished for the good of the collective and would like to reserve the right to practice intolerance when they feel it necessary without being accused of illiberality. Of course they draw the line at murder; they presumably also draw the line at tanks in the streets and gulags full of dissidents. But there are other ways to police unpopular opinions, and there the line can be drawn in such a way as to provide quite a bit of wiggle room. And this is where "my" people seem to like to draw it.

Well, my view is that that wiggle room's "space" should be of concern to any writer or artist, any person really, who is not utterly confident that his or her speech or art will always meet with general approval or endorsement. (In fact, I think that kind of misplaced confidence underlies a great deal of the discourse in this matter.) "My" people seem to have no trouble seeing this logic when it comes to campaigns to ban or restrict access to books they or their friends have written -- no one tells Sherman Alexie: "speech has consequences man, maybe write a less controversial book next time?" And everyone understands that this matter concerns freedom of expression, despite the absence of tanks in the streets. Further, Salman Rushdie's death sentence is no less serious, nor less "free speech related," because the First Amendment doesn't happen to protect him from it.

I understand the distaste for the content of Charlie Hebdo. I understand why people don't like it and don't wish to associate themselves with it. And I also understand why many people approve of and congratulate them for disassociating themselves from it. They certainly have the right to do it. But I think it's wrong, and worse than wrong: it's ill-advised. When defending an ideal, you have to go all in. The line that you think murder went too far but that some other punishment for Charlie Hebdo might well have been in order is not a defense of free speech. It is its opposite. If you're a writer or artist, the idea of punishment for art should be anathema.

So yeah, though I dislike joining clubs and such, I guess I have to say je suis Charlie here, because the alternative pretty much gives whole show away. They drew pictures, they were punished by death. Give 'em the damn award.

Posted by Dr. Frank at April 28, 2015 06:40 PM