• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Holding One’s Nose to Defend Charlie Hebdo

“Secular society” does not mean that nothing is sacred. The common good is sacred. The welfare of society is sacred. And by “sacred” in this sense I mean “of supreme value.”

Yet, of course, citizens often disagree over what the common good consists of. So we protect free speech in order that ideas will be stated by their champions as well as they can be stated. Then the public has the maximum opportunity to hear the truth amid all its rivals.

Our society therefore guarantees free speech in order to increase the common good—and thereby the good of each decent citizen.

Any compromise of free speech can play into the agenda of the powerful, so we must compromise free speech only with the greatest reluctance.

Speech that clearly harms the common good, and so badly that the very functioning of society is threatened, therefore is not tolerated—such as inciting a riot or a stampede, libel or slander, perjury or breaking contracts, disturbing the peace or uttering threats, and so on.

We also frown on obscenity—that which is shocking with no purpose other than to cater to what society judges to be depraved desires. If no one can be shown to be harmed by it, however, we tend to allow it since history shows that even great art has been judged obscene by many people in the past. We therefore exercise the humility of forbearance even of obscenity—unless some other crucial good is compromised (such as the public peace—so we don’t allow obscene posters at bus stops—or the formation of children—so we don’t allow obscenity in schools).

Humorous speech is not sacred, either. Just because something strikes some people as funny—as the Nazi cartoons of Jews were apparently humorous to many Germans—it is not thereby protected speech. If it is in fact propaganda for a campaign of repression and violence—and not merely offensive—we would repress it. And if, again, it serves no good use but can reasonably be seen to compromise the public peace—as in posters of outrageous cartoons placed in or on public transit vehicles and therefore in the sight of citizens likely to be deeply offended by it—then a sense of mutual regard and civic responsibility should prompt public authorities to repress it in those venues.

So the question of the legitimacy of cartoons making fun of someone’s religion or prophet or deity comes down to this: Is this speech so clearly harmful to the common good that it ought to be repressed? Would tolerating such speech cause such harm to the common good—including the ideals of the society—such that it has to be silenced? Or would repressing such speech mean the compromise of liberty, restraint of the free exchange of important ideas, and the weakening of efforts to expose evil or champion the good?

Hurt feelings are part of living in a pluralistic society in which what I value may be treated as ludicrous rubbish by someone else. As a Christian, this is my experience quite frequently, in the public remarks of people such as Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher. I think that their outlook is, in fact, ludicrous rubbish. And I expect that someone of their viewpoint might have his or her feelings hurt by my saying so. But perhaps my view, or their view, really is ludicrous rubbish. Then the common good will be increased by someone saying so, however clumsily or hurtfully.

Sometimes people say things in unkind ways—but what they say might still be at least partly true, or perhaps good to consider even if false. That’s part of the price we pay for having the humility to believe that we are not right about everything. And since we recognize that we may be wrong, even about very important subjects, we had better have as much free speech as we can tolerate in order to let the truth be heard.

The only alternative to free speech is completely correct speech. And only fanatics believe that they infallibly both recognize and utter only completely correct speech.

Je ne suis pas Charlie. The cartoons I have seen from that publication strike me as sophomorically cruel and stupidly unfunny. But should they be allowed to be published? Bien sûr.