The attack on Charlie Hedbo in France is horrifying. It is horrifying because of the people killed. It is horrifying because of the chill it is an assault on a fundamental freedom. An attack on a magazine for what it publishes is an attack on all people anywhere who dare or aspire to say anything at all. The Union Forever sincerely hopes that the French authorities hunt down the perpetrators of this act and imprison them for all eternity in a reconstituted Bastille.
But as we go about writing our tweets of condemnation and our inevitable blog thinkpieces about how Islam should finally “get with the times,” it’s essential that we remember that everyone, not just jihadist lunatics, hates free speech. And — like the people who perpetrated the massacre at Charlie Hedbo — we aren’t above using force, often deadly force, to silence those who offend us.
Here are six instances where good-hearted, God-fearing, liberal-minded, civilized westerners tried to do the exact same thing as Charlie Hebdo’s attackers.
1. Piss Christ
Andreas Serrano is a conceptual artist and photographer who had an art project where he submerged various classical statuettes into bodily fluids and the photographed them. One of those objects was a crucifix which—according to Serrano—he dunked into a glass filled with his own urine. The photograph, printed on a massive canvas, was first displayed in 1987 and people actually seemed to like it. The image of Christ emerging through the yellow hues is quite beautiful and foreboding, and the concept itself calls into a question the idea of what is and isn’t profane. How can a perfect God create one thing that is horrible and vile and disgusting and another that is sublime and holy?
A couple years later, however, when Piss Christ was part of an art tour that passed through Richmond, Virginia, a man wrote in to the local newspaper (2 months after the show over in fact) complaining about the blasphemy of the work. Suddenly all hell broke loose. All over the USA, conservative Christian activists and politicians issued a nationwide call to arms against Serrano. A United States Senator denounced him on the floor of the Capitol. Another publicly ripped-up a catalogue containing an image of Piss Christ. Others wanted the National Endowment of the Arts (which had indirectly funded Serrano) shut down entirely.
All of that is the sort of thing you might expect as a reaction to such a confrontational, if strangely luminous, work of art. But people took it further: Serrano reports receiving death threats. In Australia, an Archbishop tried to have the artwork banned entirely, and when the ban fell through and the show went on, a visitor to the gallery on opening day ripped the picture off the wall and kicked it. The next day two teenagers assaulted Piss Christ with a hammer. Fearing for their safety, the whole show was shut down. Later, when the artwork travelled to Avignon in France — you know, the nation where tens of thousands poured into the streets to defiantly stand up for Charlie Hebdo’s right to free expression — the gallery showing Serrano received a whole slew of phone calls promising to kill all their employees if they showed Serrano’s work, and when they showed his work anyway, three vandals smashed the photograph and another of Serrano’s works.
Of course, smashing some art isn’t on the same level as killing people – but the affront in both cases was blasphemy. In both cases, the assailants believed fervently that their outrage outweighed all other opinions on the matter: It didn’t matter that Serrano considers himself to be a Christian. It didn’t matter that the Catholic nun and art critique Sister Wendy Beckett publicly defended the work, not only as having the right to exist, but as being a truly beautiful and profound piece of religious art. As ever, the offended considered themselves more important–that they had the right to impose their will on others.
2. The Colorado Springs NAACP Bombing
The very same day as the Charlie Hedbo attack, a bomb exploded outside the Colorado Springs office of the NAACP. The bomb, thank goodness, didn’t kill anyone – but had the terrorists planted it a bit less ineptly, it definitely could have. And though the motives behind the bombers are still unknown, it’s safe to assume they didn’t do it because they enjoyed listening to folks advocate for the advancement of colored people.
For as much as we fear outsiders trying to take away our right to speak, it is more often our own neighbors who want the ball-gag forced into our mouths.
Like the Hebdo killers, the people behind #GamerGate started off with a legitimate point. Charlie Hedbo could certainly have been more respectful to the Prophet Muhammad and Islam; “video games journalism” is laughably corrupt. But in each case, some of the less rational members of the movement felt so strongly about their grievances that they spiraled horribly out of control.
The #GamerGate “scandal” is based on the (later shown to be demonstrably false) story of a cheating girlfriend supposedly exchanging sex for video game reviews. The accused, and anybody who criticized #GamerGate’s perceived sexism, found themselves the victims of all sorts of ridiculous attacks. They were threatened with assault, with murder, with rape, both on the internet and by phone. Police advised at least one of the women involved to leave her house. When feminist Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to give a speech at Utah State University, some lunatic apparently sent an email to the school promising to shoot Sarkeesian and everyone who attended the event. Even random people on twitter who criticized #GamerGate found themselves the victims of harassment and doxxing.
The people who carried out those attacks and made those threats are a disgraceful lunatic fringe of most #GamerGate – the same way that the people involved in the Charlie Hedbo attack (and attacks like it) are only a disgraceful lunatic fringe of Muslims. Most #GamerGaters are totally opposed to such threats:
But, alas, the lunatic fringe is always the loudest, most aggressive, most obnoxious part of any movement. Things were so bad — and in some sectors continue to be so bad — that a lot of people on Twitter and various blogs actually avoid discussing #GamerGate for fear of having their internet hacked. A DoS attack isn’t a commando assault, but that people criticizing #Gamergate should have to have worry that their personal details and credit card information might end up posted on 4Chan isn’t any less ridiculous than having to discuss whether a magazine should publish a cartoon about Muhammad for fear that they’ll be shot. You can protest, debate, harangue, mock, and insult, but never hurt. If you think it’s acceptable to hurt people for what they say, then you’ve never believed in free speech.
4. The 2012 Charlie Hebdo Cartoon Controversy
Back in 2012 Charlie Hebdo, as is its want, published a series of cartoons (many would say “racist caricatures”) mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Coming almost immediately in the wake of the Innocence of Muslims Cairo-Benghazi fiasco, French Muslims and the greater Islamic world responded with a great deal of outrage. This was racist. This was unfair. This was blasphemous. Etc. And so French Muslims began organizing big protests to express that upsetness, to tell Charlie to fuck off.
But the French government, fearing that those protests could turn violent or be hijacked by extremists, declared a nationwide ban on people protesting Charlie Hebdo. You could not march in street—the most treasured of French protest methods—if your intention was to criticize Charlie Hebdo. On orders of the French Interior Ministry, the gendarmes would break your protest up.
Now, to be fair, the French government’s fears—considering, again, the recent nightmares that unfolded across the Middle East in response to Innocence of Muslims—were not entirely unreasonable, and many prominent French Imams supported the ban. But regardless, France Islamic community was denied to right to answer their accusers. Charlie Hebdo got to stand bravely in the face of free speech-hating Islamist opposition, while the French government quashed the free speech of those who wanted to point out that Hebdo was not so much brave as racist.
Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism. As much as it is your sacred right to express whatever thoughts and feelings you might have, it is the equally sacred right of the rest of us to call you a jerk for what it is you think and feel.
5. That Guy Who Was the CEO of Mozilla for 11 Days
When the greater internet (which, until the introduction of Google Chrome, fanatically adored Mozilla’s Firefox browser) got wind of this, there was a massive grassroots campaign to boycott Mozilla. OkCupid went dark on Firefox, people on Twitter hurled invectives, bloggers blogged, Facebookers facebooked, all essentially demanding that Eich — who had, again, helped found the company and who supported a political campaign that did ultimately win a majority of Californians’ votes — either denounce his “past” anti-same-sex marriage views or be removed.
Initially, Eich protested. He claimed that his beliefs were his own private matter and that he had never made them a part of the company. And near as can be told, that’s true. Eich wasn’t the CEO of Hobby Lobby. He gave no stump speeches, signed on to no court cases. Had financial disclosure laws not revealed his donation, the public probably would have never noticed there was an anti-same-sex marriage proponent in their midst. But they did know. And they hated it.
After only a feeble resistance that would have made even the Denver Broncos feel ashamed, Mozilla capitulated. Eich, having served a mere 11 days as CEO, resigned, and the board publicly apologizing for ever appointing him CEO in the first place.
This is not to say that the people who protested Eich’s appointment are horrible terroristic monsters. You can make the argument that opposing the legality of same-sex marriage is the same as opposing the legality of interracial marriage—that it is a moral anathema. And everything Mozilla’s detractors did was well within the bounds of their own right to free speech.
But they were certainly not respectful of Eich’s right to differ. The internet united as it had almost never united before in a steamroller campaign to make sure that Eich materially suffered for his private political opinions. In the proclamation “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” there is no second clause that reads, “But also you’re fired.”
6. The Alien and Sedition Acts
The American Founding Fathers. What beacons of liberty! What scions of progress! Without them, we wouldn’t have a county. We couldn’t vote. We’d be too busy getting cruelly and unusually punished all the time by English tyrants to even bear arms. That, at least, is the widely-held view.
But certain founding fathers also turned around and tried to abolish free speech within just a dozen years of explicitly writing Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech into the Bill of Rights. These were called the Alien and Sedition Acts. Though they were intended to root out “French-sympathizers” during a particularly tense time with the new French Republic, what they ended up doing was outlawing all direct criticism of the Federalist government led by President John Adams.
The US government, when it was younger than you are today, went out and arrested, fined, and even imprisoned writers, journalists, and what we would now call “political activists” for doing things like calling John Adams a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor,” accusing George Washington of incompetence, and sticking up a pole that read “No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President; Long Live the Vice President.”
The criticisms made against the Adam’s Administration by the people prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts weren’t always sophisticated. Many of them were the 19th-century equivalent of those people who used to protest the Iraq War by decapitating an effigy of George W. Bush. But free speech is all speech, even obnoxious, pedantic, unfair speech. Free speech is for your asshole brother as much as for your best friend. It exists to protect not just the agreeable and well-reasoned but the awful, disgusting, vile, and infuriating. It exists to defend both the NAACP and the Klu Klux Klan, both blasphemers and the Westboro Baptist Church.
We all have fantasies about a world without Republicans or Liberals or Fox News or MSNBC or misogynists or racists or Jezebel or Gawker or 4chan, a world where they would just shut up and let the rest of us live our lives in dignity and peace. Despite the distance between that desire and the act of storming the offices of satirical magazines with guns, the wish to quiet people who think differently from you is the same seed from which the Charlie Hebdo attack grew. And so as we pour hate on the men who shot up Charlie Hebdo, it is important to remember that the evil that led them to assault other’s freedom of speech isn’t exclusive to them. It’s also in ourselves just like it was in the French police officer Ahmed Merabet to die defending a magazine that belittled and insulted his religion.