Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Obligatory Charlie Hebdo Post

A Charlie Hebdo cover
So, what do I say about the terrible Muslim attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper that (it appears) makes its living writing the most offensive cartoons it can think of, toward anything and everything?  Well, everyone condemns the attack.  Everyone agrees that no matter how offensive your expression, it is no excuse for murder.  That isn't very hard.  But next comes the question of censorship.  Granting that there is no excuse for murder, or even for blasphemy prosecutions, what of the debate on whether one really ought to refrain from such things as a matter of good taste?

My first introduction to Charles Krauthammer was in 1989 during an uproar over some Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. Some of the pictures were grotesque -- Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip in his rectum, one man urinating in another man's mouth, a man sticking his finger into his penis, and so forth. They were shown in an art museum in Cincinnati, in a separate room from more innocent ones. Krauthammer used this to illustrate the point that censorship is a relative, not an absolute, concept. News broadcasts only showed only the innocent photos -- they merely talked about the nasty ones. Museum brochures were presumably just as circumspect.  To see the photos, one had to pay the museum price and pass through the door, and even then the nasty pictures were kept in a separate room.  So, Krauthammer argued, the broader the exposure, the narrower the range of what can be shown.  And consider the range of exposure possible.  Public billboards. Broadcast on television. Museum brochures.  Red light districts.  Museums.  In a special room in the museum.  Cable pay-per-view.  Mail order photographs.  Krauthammer argued that the real controversy was where on the spectrum you place Mapplethorpe, a less dramatic question than the question of whether you are for or against censorship.  (This was before the internet, which renders many of those categories obsolete.  But highly public sites like You Tube do (presumably) ban extreme material and set up gatekeeping for others).

It seems to me that the same applies not just to how broad exposure material receives, but also to the penalties for publishing unacceptable materials.  The harsher the penalty, the more sparingly it should be applied.  Consider possible penalties for a magazine like Charlie Hebdo that specializes in maximally offensive covers:

  • Murder
  • Lesser acts of violence
  • Criminal prosecution
  • Civil suit 
  • Boycott by retailers
  • Boycott by advertisers
  • Loss of advertising revenue
  • Having retailers sell the magazine, but no on the stands.  Customers must go up to the counter and ask for the magazine.
  • Having retailers sell the magazine, but with an opaque cover over the cartoon.
  • Social rejection for offensive content
  • Mockery
  • Being told to have better manners
All right, we all reject murder and other criminal violence.  I think it safe to say that Americans overwhelmingly reject criminal prosecution and even civil suit.  But what about the rest?  One blog commenter remarked that, although the US has fewer legal penalties on the press than any other country, we do not have magazines with such offensive covers.  Advertisers would refuse to advertise and retailers would refuse to sell.  And whoever would reject a mere lecture on manners -- well, let's just say it is all a matter of whose ox is being gored.

One final comment here.  Glenn Greenwald, weighing in with the people who think Charlie Hebdo should show better manners says:
Central to free speech activism has always been the distinction between defending the right to disseminate Idea X and agreeing with Idea X, one which only the most simple-minded among us are incapable of comprehending.
With all due respect to Greenwald, he is wrong, wrong, wrong about that.  Most people are not, in fact, capable of distinguishing between support the right to express an idea and supporting the idea itself.  That is what is causing much of the tug-of-war about Charlie Hebdo now.

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