Jacky Naegelen / Reuters

PEN America, Charlie Hebdo and the virtue of self-restraint

Honor the dead but seek more productive forms of engagement

May 4, 2015 12:00PM ET

There is, of course, no justification for the murder of political cartoonists. Nothing I say should be construed as in any way mitigating the horror of the Jan. 7 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine by two gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In no way do I excuse the crime or accuse the victims of somehow bringing it on themselves. This should go without saying, but as I have learned from the reactions to what I previously published on this matter, it bears repeating, and even then there are some for whom it will not be enough. I should stipulate at the outset that I believe the editors and cartoonists at the satirical magazine exemplified all the courage with which they are credited by PEN America, whose decision to honor the magazine with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award has sparked controversy and led 145 writers to support a boycott of its annual gala. Charlie’s staffers knew that, by taking the course they did, they might be subject to physical harm.

I do not in any way contest the magazine’s right to blaspheme, offend or denounce. I regard some restrictions on free speech under French law (e.g., lese majesty — a protester was arrested a few years ago for wearing a “Fuck Sarkozy” T-shirt — and prohibiting Holocaust denial and apology for terrorism) as undue limitations on political expression. In this respect, I am more of a free-speech absolutist than many in France today.

The possession of a right does not, however, make it imperative to exercise that right. The confrontation between cartoonists and jihadists began when a Danish editor raised the question whether editorial cartoonists might be exercising self-censorship with respect to Islam. He regarded such self-censorship, if it existed, as a potential threat to free speech rights. I do not deny that such a potential threat might exist, but I question whether it was or is a clear and present danger to free speech rights in the West today. Calling self-restraint self-censorship seems to me to foreclose thoughtful response by applying a pejorative label. When communities with very different sensibilities regarding religion must live together, there is potential virtue to self-restraint, which may connote many things, including respect for the other, a desire to avoid conflict on matters where rational discourse will be difficult to achieve and a commitment to avoid inflaming tensions. Discretion is a social virtue, and frankly speaking one’s mind on all occasions can be a form of misanthropy or aggression, as Molière reminds us.

Charlie Hebdo exercised political speech in its caricatures of Muhammad, and it is fair to judge political speech on grounds of utility. I have doubts about the usefulness of Charlie’s specific line of attack. If a particular form of political speech fails to advance the goals for which it is conceived, then it makes sense to turn to other modes of expression. The cartoonist Luz (Rénald Luzier), who drew Charlie Hebdo’s post-massacre cover depicting a forgiving Muhammad, has announced that he will do no more caricatures of Muhammad. Although I obviously cannot say what his motives are, he may also have concluded that such caricatures do not contribute to what the French call vivre-ensemble (others might prefer the German phrase Mitsein ), or living together amicably, or that there are simply more useful and effective ways to attack the problem of terrorism.

Charlie Hebdo’s approach to politics contributed to a confusion of the mundane world of political discourse with the sphere of ultimate values.

As I have written elsewhere, there is a long tradition of blasphemous and anti-authoritarian satire in France. I don’t think aesthetic considerations are of much moment in the present context, but perhaps it’s worth saying that I don’t think the Charlie cartoons are a very distinguished addition to a line that can be traced back through Daumier and Rabelais and beyond. Their message is not always clear. Nevertheless, it is important to add that, as far as I can judge, their intention is not racist. Charlie has always been staunchly anticlerical, anti-religious and hostile to all expressions of the sacred. Like Charlie, I do not find religious categories of much use in understanding or enduring the modern world, but unlike the magazine’s editors, I recognize that other people do, and I therefore think it best to keep my doubts about the religious mentality to myself, except in places where I feel I can express myself with sufficient clarity to avoid the most egregious misunderstandings. Satirical cartooning is not a genre that allows for much subtlety, and in the era of mass global communication, it is almost certain to be misunderstood. Exactly what burden the possibility of misunderstanding should place on the satirist is open to question, but when cartoons unleashed upon uncomprehending audiences can provoke riots and loss of life, I think there is some burden. Yet I recognize some inconsistency in my own thought on this point, since I wouldn’t argue that Salman Rushdie should have refrained from writing “The Satanic Verses.”

I don’t, in any event, think that one can be simply for or against Charlie’s approach to the problem of jihadist violence. Charlie’s sensibility is not mine. Because I prefer mine, I would hope to convince Charlie and its fellow travelers that the way of discretion is the better way, but if they can't be persuaded and persist in their more frontal approach, I wouldn’t deny either their right to do so or their courage in confronting a real evil. I would, however, hesitate to honor an approach I think is politically unproductive.

An analogy might be useful here: If a president for whose politics I felt some sympathy but with whom I disagreed on many matters of political tactics were to be assassinated, I would, of course, deplore the murder (as I would deplore the murder even of a president of whose politics I totally disapproved). I would not, however, feel compelled to say he was a political genius who could do no wrong and deserved every honor his country could bestow. The canonization of political martyrs is a form of political theology I find particularly troublesome, since it transforms questions of tactics and means into judgments of value.

Charlie’s approach to politics contributed to a confusion of the mundane world of political discourse with the sphere of ultimate values. However laudable the magazine’s intentions, I believe that such confusion has proved politically unavailing. I would therefore advocate a change of tactics. Honor the dead, by all means, and defend what is defensible. But there is nothing dishonorable about asking whether other forms of engagement might not offer a greater likelihood of success.

Arthur Goldhammer is is a translator, writer and affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He has translated more than 125 books from the French. He is also the author of a novel, "Shooting War," and a blog on French politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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