The outpouring of sympathy and support for the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has been enormous. Over a million people poured into the streets of Paris to protest the terrorist attack on its headquarters, a gathering said to be larger than when France celebrated the end of World War II. It appears to be a near universal statement of support for freedom of expression.
But is it? Is there really a consensus, even here in the United States, for freedom of expression in all its forms? Do all the people who hold up signs declaring “the pen is mightier than the sword” really believe it when it comes to those with whom they disagree?
Sadly, many do not. In fact, some of the very same people outraged by the violence committed against Charlie Hebdo are all too happy to limit freedom of speech and inquiry on America’s campuses. Universities routinely use speech codes to limit what can be expressed on campus. Prominent figures such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Harvard University President Larry Summers are prevented from speaking at some of the country’s most prominent universities. A University of Illinois professor who taught a class on Catholicism is fired for explaining the Catholic understanding of natural law and homosexuality; and a training manual for employees at Marquette University (a Jesuit school no less) advises them to report privately expressed criticisms of same-sex marriage to authorities as harassment. Hair-trigger charges of “microaggression” are leveled against professors for an unintended insult. “Trigger warnings” are sent out on social media to warn tender-hearted students that they had best avoid certain lectures (say, on religion and Western Civilization) for fear of being traumatized.
It’s bad enough on America’s campuses, but illiberal shaming rituals of intolerance are coming to the workplace too. If you say or write anything, even privately, that certain groups may find offensive, you can lose your job. Just ask Atlanta’s Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was recently fired because of a book he published outside of work in which he expressed Christianity’s traditional teachings on homosexuality. Mozilla’s Brendan Eich resigned his new post as CEO after an outcry over his private donation to a group supporting a traditional marriage initiative in California. Apparently, some freedom of expression is more equal than others.
It would be easy to conclude that people who oppose the free speech of some are merely hypocrites. They say one thing and do another. And it’s true, they are hypocrites—flagrant partisans of a double standard. But it’s important to realize that the major reason they are not deterred by such criticism is that the double standard is actually a core principle of their ideology. In their minds, to be inconsistent is absolutely necessary to be consistent, just as it is necessary to be intolerant of certain points of view supposedly to be tolerant. It is the necessary illiberal means to advance their idea of a liberal agenda.
The key to making sense of this is to understand that free speech is not really the issue. The elimination of barriers to their vision of absolute equality is the issue. After all, the heirs of the radical “free speech” movement that began in the 1960s—the radical tenured professors who now hold sway in many American universities—are the same people trying to control free speech on campus. Leftists who want to control speech are doing so precisely because they believe that something—namely, their ideology of radical egalitarianism—is more important than free speech.
They may think of themselves as great civil libertarians of free speech, but they tolerate little dissent if someone dares question their most sacred ideas. Their inspiration is not the First Amendment, which is little more than a means to an end—embraced when it’s convenient and rejected when it’s not. Rather it is the cause of making ideological war on certain kinds of people and certain kinds of ideas, and in that war it is perfectly permissible to take no prisoners.
Who are the enemy? Actually, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon targets make up a pretty good enemies’ list—Christians, conservatives, rich people, and Jews, particularly if they can be linked to Israel. Of course, also on the list is the lampooned Prophet Mohammad, but he presents an ideological problem for the left. Often, Muslims are presented as victims of America, Israel, and conservatives. In that context, they become a cause célèbre, a special class right up there with gays, women, and racial minorities.
However, when an Islamist terrorist beheads or blows up an ideological ally such as Charlie Hebdo, they have a problem. Luckily, the problem only lasts until the first mosque is attacked by some unhinged right-winger. Then it’s back to defending Muslims from “Islamophobes,” often making the ridiculous charge that Islamophobia is a species of racism. They have difficulty keeping their enemies straight because their ethics are situational. It depends on how a particular situation fits into the broader ideological war on Christianity, Judaism, and Western culture.
If you don’t believe me, ask Dutch-born cartoonist Bernard Holtrop who worked for Charlie Hebdo. Apparently fed up with so much solidarity from people he despises, he declared, “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends”—mentioning the Pope and Queen Elizabeth and others who had the temerity to express support for Charlie Hebdo. “I have always defended Charlie Hebdo,” he said, “[and t]here can be no debate on freedom of expression, never.” Never, except of course when it comes to the Pope, who deserves nothing but a splash of bile from his stomach.
Holtrop and Charlie Hebdo’s vulgarity is certainly no excuse for the horrible violence perpetrated against its staff. Moreover, it’s a good thing that so many people around the world spoke out in favor of freedom of expression. I only wish that many of the magazine’s left-wing supporters in America and around the world would apply the same standard to Christian conservatives.
So here is my appeal. If the champions of free speech on the left want to be truly consistent, they should do the following:
Stop making convenient exceptions to freedom of expression. As is often noted, the First Amendment is intended to defend unpopular speech, not popular speech. That includes speech with which you disagree. No self-respecting liberal can call himself that if he violates one of the most sacred of all civil liberties—freedom of expression.
Recognize and embrace the most liberal of all principles—namely, that expressions of personal (and especially religious) opinions are protected by the Constitution. Not only does the First Amendment guarantee freedom of the press, it also protects “the free exercise of religion.” Firing a person for writing a private book expressing his religious views on homosexuality is no less offensive and unconstitutional than dismissing someone for criticizing the Pope or the Prophet Mohammad.
Return the American university to a place of liberal education, learning, and open and free inquiry. Many of America’s universities and colleges are still dedicated to these principles, but too many of them are not. It’s not only the stifling of free speech but monotonous conformity that bedevils academic learning, particularly in the humanities. The ethos of academic freedom should be truly respected, not used as an excuse to shut out certain points of view. Real diversity of opinion should be embraced as an end itself.
Stop exaggerating the threat supposedly posed by Christians and other conservatives. Much of the rationale for prohibiting conservatives from speaking on campuses stems from the outrageously stupid view that they are about to swoop down on the college green like the KKK and start lynching people. Activists actually believe they are conducting a defensive operation, when in reality they are offensively imposing a majoritarian view on minorities (especially on campus). A short look in the mirror would correct that misapprehension. It’s not conservatives who are behaving like intolerant bigots. It is radical leftists.
Drop the collective guilt mindset of identity politics. So much of the intolerance generated by the postmodern left is based on spurious assumptions about how groups of people think. The notion of “white privilege,” for example, that assumes all white people are unconsciously racist is guilty of the same racialist thinking that white supremacists once used to justify their hatred of blacks. Liberals need to go back to thinking of human beings as individuals who should be judged by their merits, not by their racial characteristics.
Get a consistent story on how to think about radical Islam. Depending on whom you talk to, Islamist terrorists are either bloody murderers of liberal cartoonists or “activists” responding to legitimate fears of “Islamophobia.” Leftists can’t make up their minds whether to fear or embrace the radical Islamists. The reason for their confusion stems from the fact that they fear Christians far more than Muslims. They occasionally get shocked out of their delusions by the threat of real violence by Islamist terrorists. But it doesn’t take long for them to realize that they can’t go too far down that road without aiding and abetting the real enemy: Christians.
Thankfully, most leftists who wish to stifle free speech don’t use violence. But they do advocate the coercive use of shaming rituals and the force of law to get their way. The means are not nearly as severe, but the principle of coercion remains. Once someone embarks down the road of saying one’s opponents have no right to their views at all, it’s not too many steps until one is tolerating all sorts of horrible things, like firing someone for his religious views.
The terrible massacre in Paris could be a “teachable” moment on the meaning of tolerance, but it will require soul searching by America’s cultural leftists. Double standards are the defense mechanisms of the confused and the insincere. They can only be exposed by clearing up the confusion and by exposing the insincerity. One hopes that after all the Charlie Hebdo marches are over, we can set to work to establish real freedom of expression in this country for everybody, and not just for a certain special few from one wing of the ideological spectrum.
- Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ