Friday, January 16, 2015

Two principles and Charlie Hebdo

When we protect or permit an activity, we are usually talking about two distinct principles. The first principle is that the activity we're protecting itself has positive value.* Second, even if, in specific instances, the activity itself has negative value, the cost of prohibiting or restricting the activity is worse than the activity itself. For example, it might be difficult to actually agree on what instances of the activity are good or bad: if we restrict instances that I think are bad, I might have to permit others to restrict instances I think are good. Or, if we allow specific people to restrict an activity, they might restrict only instances that harm themselves, regardless of the common evaluation of various instances.

*e.g. in the consequentialist, utilitarian sense, the activity generally has a positive effect on aggregate well-being; this analysis, however, works regardless of how one individually constructs positive and negative value.

There are two freedoms that are at issue in the Charlie Hebdo killings. The first is freedom of speech. The second is freedom to live. As far as I tell, no one (serious) says that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists should not have have freedom of speech and life. The question is, under which principle do we uphold their freedom of speech and life: did their speech and their lives have intrinsic positive value? Or did their speech and lives have intrinsic negative value, and did we let them speak and live (and condemn their killing) only because the cost of suppression exceeds the cost of permission?

I think most speech, even speech I disagree with, has positive value. For example, I think the socialist magazine, Monthly Review, has positive value. I also think the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has positive value, even though I strongly disagree with what they say, and even though I think they are often... misleading. Given that these opinions published in the WSJ actually exist in the world, I think it's intrinsically positive that their advocates openly publish them without fear of coercive repression. This positive good does not mean they are immune from criticism; the whole point of allowing them to publish is to make their opinions freely available for criticism. So these publications have freedom of speech on the first principle: protect the positive.

On the other hand, I think a publication like Stormfront is just reprehensible. I think even given that the opinions there actually exist, publishing them has a hugely negative value. However, I believe that the cost of trying to repress Stormfront would be higher than the cost of allowing them to publish. This publication, and others like it, have freedom of speech on the second principle: we permit the negative because of the cost of suppression.

I'm not particularly sentimental about human life. I think almost all human life has intrinsic positive value, but there are some people whose lives I think have intrinsic negative value. I think Jerry "if we gave him an enema, we could bury him in a matchbox" Falwell's life, for example, had intrinsic negative value. We don't kill the first kind of person under the first principle; we don't kill the second kind of person under the second principle: it's more costly to kill them than to let them live.

Although the effect is the same, at least at the level of legal coercion, I think the decision to categorize and protect some publications and some people under the second principle is momentous. And I think the two freedoms are presently strongly coupled for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and staff, given that a dozen of them were just killed because of what they said.* To say right now that their freedom of speech was protected on only the second principle is also to say that their lives were protected only on the second principle, that even though we condemn their killers (on the second principle), their lives themselves had negative value and the world is better off with them dead.

*There are a lot of causes of the killings; it is perhaps more precise to say that they specifically were chosen as targets because of what they said. The killers were not trying to kill only random civilians.

And when people say, "It's wrong that they were killed, but..." I think that's exactly what they were saying: the cost of killing them was higher than the cost of letting them live, but their lives were a cost to society, not a benefit. I think that's a coherent position, but I think it's pretty momentous. We are saying something important about their work and their lives.

(As a side note, when a lot of people justify the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, etc. ad nauseam, that's the language they use: "It's wrong that Martin/Brown/Gardner was killed, but...")

I think affording protection of speech under the second principle is momentous because although the legal consequences are the same, the social consequences are very different. When I disagree with someone, I need say only that while I think their opinions are wrong, but I'm happy they offered them so we can talk about it. Their speech, while wrong, is still valuable. However, when I protect someone only under the second principle, I'm saying not only that their opinions are wrong, but that this is something we should not even be talking about in the first place. I will not tell the first person to shut up, but I will tell the second, "I won't make you shut up, but seriously, just shut the fuck up and crawl back under your rock; your opinions are not fit for civilized* society." There are a lot of sub-legal ways of coercing people, and the farther you are from the line between protection under the first and second principles, the more sub-legal coercion becomes socially permissible. For example, I would never fire someone (except as a scientist, politician, or relevant civil servant) for denying evolution or global warming. I would not refuse service to someone of most any religion. But I would, for example, fire someone for posting racist or sexist comments or "empty" threats on their Facebook page. I would in fact refuse service to anyone who says "n—" in my store.

*As "civilized" as we are, which isn't very.

Affording protection of life under the second principle is also momentous. If society thinks someone's life has positive value, we actively try not to kill them. But if we think their life has negative value, we'll kill them as soon as we have a legal excuse. Again, the whole point of the recent killing of Black men is just that: their lives have negative value, and the second we have an excuse, we will rid our society of these harmful lives. It's not terribly difficult to create a legal excuse to kill someone: that's exactly what Zimmer did, and that's almost certainly what Darren Wilson did. Just provoke someone until fear and anger causes them to do something suspicious, and then kill them in "self defense." If the victim's life had intrinsic positive value, we would look more deeply into the circumstances. If, for example, Trayvon Martin had killed George Zimmer in "self-defense," we would have looked very deeply into the circumstance; indeed, we would probably have found some sort of fault with Martin's excuse, and convicted him of manslaughter. When the victim's life has intrinsic negative value, why bother to look deeply? They needed killing, you had a enough excuse that we're not worried about people just randomly shooting others: you're cool, go home.

So... looking at Charlie Hebdo...

Again, I think it's hard to talk about Charlie Hebdo without linking freedom of speech and freedom to live. We have to ask, did what they say make their lives themselves of negative value? Do we condemn their killing only because killing even bad people is worse than letting them live? I think if say, "The killings were wrong but...", you are taking the second position, and I think it's important to justify that position, because it really is momentous. So what's the justification?

The first justification is that they published at least two cartoons that I think were gratuitously offensive. The first is the depiction of "French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a black woman, drawn as a monkey." The second is this cartoon, which uses the word "negres" to refer to Black people. Even with context (the first cartoon is satirizing others' racism; the second really isn't directed towards Black people or people of color), and even given my low taste in humor, I think these cartoons are unacceptably racist and should not have been published, for a lot of reasons that should be obvious. But does that mean the publication as a whole has negative value? Does that mean the lives of the cartoonists have negative value? That they are protected only because it's more costly to shut them down and kill them than let them live and publish? If you say answer in the affirmative, how generally are you willing to apply the methodology? Only to people who disagree with you? Only to middle-class white male French cartoonists? If your uncle said something anti-Semitic, how hard would you sanction him? If he were in trouble, would you stand with him nonetheless? Or would you say, "Fuck that anti-semitic bastard. If he's in trouble, he's on his own."

The second justification is that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were "Islamophobic." Islamophobia is defined variously as
  • "Intense dislike or fear of Islam, esp. as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims" (Oxford English Dictionary)
  • "[S]ocially reproduced prejudices and aversion to Islam and Muslims, as well as actions and practices that attack, exclude or discriminate against persons on the basis that they are or perceived to be Muslim and be associated with Islam" (Gardell)
  • "[A]n outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination" (Runnymede Trust)

I want to compare and contrast Islamophobia with sexism, anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism. We know that women, Black people and Jewish people are entirely ordinary; as a class, there is nothing at all* special about them. Thus, attributing any special quality, positive or negative, to women, Black and Jewish people as a class is known to be false. Because it's known to be false, any such attribution is by definition unfounded, and we can actually remove the qualifier from the (third) definition were it employed to define sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism.

*except the obvious and usually irrelevant reproductive differences between men and women.

I do not, however, believe that we know that Islam is entirely ordinary; thus, we need the "unfounded" in the definition of Islamophobia. I have not yet been convinced that there is no foundation for any finding that Islam is special or substantively different in any socially relevant way. Of course, there are some findings of specialness that lack foundation, such as that "Islam has no values in common with other cultures, [or] that it is inferior to Western cultures" (Runnymede Trust). Similarly, the idea that all Muslims have exactly the same views, is provably false; that all Muslims are collectively blameworthy for the actions of extremists is trivially stupid. But Islam is not a race; it is, as are all religions, a political and social ideology, i.e. a collection of socially relevant values (well, many collections with substantive similarities). To the extent that people choose, Unlike race, Islam, like every religion, is a choice, both in its adoption and its content.

I have often seen it asserted that Charlie Hebdo is in fact Islamophobic.* There are two bases for making this charge. First, have they promulgated unfounded assertions about Islam or Muslims? If so, I have not seen the analysis. Second, criticism of Islam and Muslims is unfounded a priori: It is wrong per se to mock certain values. If so, I have not seen a convincing argument for consistently deciding which values are excluded from mockery. I think pretentiousness, pomposity, and arrogance, not to mention outright racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, all of which are values, may certainly be mocked, as savagely as one wishes, and as humorously as one is able. So what values are exempt? What values may not be mocked, regardless of their content?


As far as I can tell,

And even if someone mocks a value I hold, well, I still think their mockery is valuable, even if wrong, for exactly the same reason that I think speech I disagree with is still valuable. Good: it's out in the open that you think this or that value I hold is ridiculous. Let's talk about it. I want to see it. I won't tell you to STFU and GBTW just because I disagree with you about what is or is not ridiculous. The only mockery that I think is impermissible is mockery that is based on falsehoods so well established as false and socially harmful that their expression can be nothing but perversity. It is only the latter that I would say has truly negative value, and is protected only under the second principle.

I have not done a thorough analysis of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. So I don't know with any degree of confidence that they are not Islamophobic. But if you want to put them in the same category as the KKK and the American Nazi Party, I think it is incumbent on you to make that case.

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