Blasphemy for Me, But Not for Thee

Column: Do liberals actually believe in the right to offend?

January 9, 2015

Twelve killed in Paris. Islamic terrorists executed them in a military-style attack. Why? Because they worked for Charlie Hebdo—sort of the French Mad—which had published cartoons "insulting" to Islam. The murders demonstrated the threat, the reach, and the malignity of Islamism. So it was heartening, at the end of this demoralizing day, to see a consensus on the importance of free speech.

Web sites in Europe and America, liberal and conservative, published the offending cartoons. My Twitter feed was clogged with pundits, of every persuasion, declaring their support for inviolable rights of free speech. Thousands marched in Paris in solidarity with the dead. Their motto: "Je Suis Charlie." I am Charlie.

I am buoyed by the spirit of defiance in the face of terror, and by the avowals of Enlightenment principles such as freedom of religion and speech and press. Yet I confess there are parts of the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders that I find discomfiting.

The unanimity of outrage expressed on Twitter, the unthinking allegiance to the cause of the hour whatever that cause might be, the social positioning of writers struggling to be the most pure, the most righteous, the most moving in their indignation—all of these things remind me of other scandals, of other rages, in which the targets were not Islamic terrorists but men and women who disagree with elements of liberal dogma.

Do liberals actually believe in the right to offend? Their attitude seems to me to be ambivalent at best. And this equivocation was apparent within hours of the attack, when news outlets censored or refused to publish the images for which the Charlie Hebdo editors were killed. Classifying satire or opinion as "hate speech" subject to regulation is not an aberration. It is commonplace.

Indeed, the outpouring of support for free speech in the aftermath of the Paris attack coincides with, and partially obscures, the degradation of speech rights in the West. Commencement last year was marked by universities revoking appearances by speakers Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali for no other reason than that mobs disagreed with the speakers’ points of view. I do not recall liberals rallying behind Condi and Hirsi Ali then.

Nor do I recall liberals standing up for the critics of global warming and evolutionary theory, of same-sex marriage and trans rights and women in combat, of riots in Ferguson and of Obama’s decision to amnesty millions of illegal immigrants. On the contrary: To dissent from the politically correct and conventional and fashionable is to invite rebuke, disdain, expulsion from polite society, to court the label of Islamophobe or denier or bigot or cisnormative or misogynist or racist or carrier of privilege and irredeemable micro-aggressor. For the right to offend to have any meaning, however, it cannot be limited to theistic religions. You must have the right to offend secular humanists, too.

Brendan Eich donated a thousand dollars to Proposition Eight in 2008. Six years later it cost him his job. In 2014, when Charles Krauthammer merely stated his agnosticism on the question of what causes global warming, liberals organized a petition demanding his removal from the Washington Post. A rather touchy climate scientist named Michael Mann—subtly parodied in Interstellar—has sued National Review and Mark Steyn for disagreeing with him. Last May, after some sensitive souls complained, the Chicago Sun-Times removed from its site a column by Kevin D. Williamson critical of transgender activism. No one wept for Kevin.

Just last month Sony Pictures initially declined to release The Interview in theaters because North Korea threatened retaliation. And at this very moment, a student at Brandeis University is persecuted by his college administration, threatened with disciplinary action and even expulsion, because his journalism and activism have made some of his fellow students uncomfortable.

The liberal desire to regulate speech, especially political speech, is overwhelming. The Democrats’ ideal campaign finance regime is one in which speech would be closely regulated by bureaucrats and courts. The left was apoplectic in 2010 when the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision overturned, on First Amendment grounds, parts of McCain-Feingold. Citizens United, remember, had sued the FEC because its film critical of Hillary Clinton had been deemed an illegal instance of "electioneering." The nerve.

A campaign finance system designed by Lawrence Lessig and Harry Reid would suppress opposing viewpoints and use disclosure as a cudgel by which to impugn and ostracize would-be Brendan Eichs. In 2010, Ohio Democrat Steve Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission against the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. Driehaus charged that the nonprofit had posted an offensive billboard in his district—and that this advertisement violated a state law criminalizing "inaccurate" statements about candidates for office.

This inability to distinguish between statements of fact (2+2=4) and statements of opinion (Steve Driehaus is a jerk) is a testament to the liberal confusion and irresolution towards free speech and the right to offend. Last year the Driehaus case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices dismissed the complaint. Unanimously. The Court’s decision was not surprising. What was surprising, shocking, was that the now-overturned Ohio law existed in the first place.

"This attack was an assault on freedom everywhere," wrote the New York Times editorial board of the Paris massacre. Yes it was. It is also the deadliest and most horrifying substantiation of a worldwide assault on free thought. Is it too much to hope that the Times editorial board and other liberals will use the attack to reexamine the basis of their glib and contradictory idea of free speech, to recognize that taking the right to blaspheme seriously means defending the unpopular and controversial and haram whenever a member of a designated victim class is aggrieved, wherever a mob becomes frenzied, whatever the views of the offended?

I think we know the answer. In 2012, in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, the Obama administration famously went out of its way to place the blame for the killing of four Americans on an "anti-Islamic" video that it vociferously condemned. Pulled from YouTube, the video was said to have invited riots by Islamic mobs, to have somehow exceeded the freedoms liberals now champion.

"I know it’s hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day," said Hillary Clinton. The man who made the video was sentenced to jail on a parole violation.

Around that time, Jay Carney questioned "the judgment behind the decision" of Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons satirizing Islam. The Obama administration supported, in 2011, a U.N. resolution "condemning the stereotyping, negative profiling, and stigmatization of people based on their religion."

Stereotypes, negativity, criticism, profiling, stigmas, meanness in general—if expressed in print or by voice, these subjective statements are parts of speech (and keep me employed). They may be imprudent. They may be wrong. But they must be free.