Satire is, by definition, disrespectful

Suzanne Nossel’s reply to Deborah Eisenberg, also in Glenn Greenwald’s collection, is very elucidating.

We believe that honoring Charlie Hebdo affords us an opportunity to inflect global opinion on an issue of longstanding concern to PEN and to free expression advocates worldwide, including many in the Muslim world: namely, efforts to devalue, ban, or punish acts deemed to constitute the defamation of religion. Such assaults come both from governments and from vigilantes, and they are not acceptable in either context.

That pulls a little against some of the other things she says, which are on the “speech all speech no matter what the content” side. This is saying that it’s not just a matter of all speech no matter what the content; that the particulars matter. I agree with that. Suppose instead of Charlie Hebdo we had writers for a hardline Catholic magazine, one funded by the Catholic League for instance, or the Iona Institute. I wouldn’t want to see them get a PEN award. The Catholic League doesn’t believe in free speech, just for one thing, while Charlie Hebdo emphatically does. The Catholic League doesn’t believe in freedom itself, except in the very strained sense of freedom for popes and bishops to control everyone else including non-Catholics.

The idea that no words, no matter how offensive or insulting, can ever justify violence seems basic to us here, but is honored in the breach in many parts of the world. We see honoring Charlie Hebdo as a potent way to affirm and elevate that principle at a moment when the world is paying attention. We see a chance to promote and defend a global definition of free speech that is broad enough to encompass all speech except that which falls outside the U.S.’s First Amendment, namely incitement to imminent violence; speech such as the calls to genocide over the Rwandan airwaves (the European standard is different, and there are some prohibitions on speech – such as bans on Holocaust denial and blasphemy laws still on the books in places like Ireland – that we reject).

Look at that: she includes the very thing I keep citing as the classic exception to free speech absolutism: “the calls to genocide over the Rwandan airwaves.” Mind you, she probably means the direct calls to genocide, as opposed to the lead up to those calls in which RMC called Tutsis “cockroaches” and the like; I mean both.

We also believe strongly in upholding and defending the role of satire in free societies. Satire is, by definition, disrespectful and often insulting. Based on Charlie Hebdo’s history, their statements and the accounts of those within PEN who have personally known and worked with the magazine, we believe that it sits firmly within the tradition of French satire…

The new editor of Charlie Hebdo has said that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism—an argument some have made about the incursion of religion into American politics. As we look through the cartoons we think most if not all can be understood in that context.

And that really shouldn’t be all that hard to grasp. Religion has a powerful hold over the minds of many people, a hold that is in many ways illegitimate, and all the more powerful for being illegitimate – i.e. there’s no way to appeal or debate or negotiate it. There are excellent reasons to dispute religion’s huge and non-negotiable power, and satire has always been one very good way to do that.

The outcry by a great many Muslim groups in the aftermath of the attacks also reflects a view that satirists should have liberty to express their views, and that these cartoonists were not motivated by cruelty. We have heard from Muslims, many of whom reject the prohibitions on the depiction of Mohammed, actually decrying the discussion about Muslim grievances in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. They believe this line of discourse legitimizes Muslim extremism, which they see as a far greater danger to Muslims than Western anti-Muslim sentiment.

Yep. The liberal Muslims I know intensely dislike “the discussion about Muslim grievances in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.” They think that kind of deflection is bad for Muslims.

But near the end she backs off.

In sum, we are honoring Charlie Hebdo not because of the material you find offensive, but because of their fearless defense of their right to express themselves, a defense that has made our spines stiffen here at PEN and throughout the free expression community as we recognize the depth of our obligation to stand firm in the force of powerful and dangerous interests.

I wish she hadn’t said that part. It’s saying too much. PEN is honoring Charlie Hebdo for their work, not just for being killed for their work.

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