It's been a strange and interesting experience to see the post-rape blame-the-victim tactic applied to the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Usually, there's a "but" involved: "The actions of the Islamic terrorists were deplorable, but it should be said that the cartoonists had crossed a line." As Ali A. Rizvi wrote in his Huffington Post article "How Terrorism Won":
Let's be clear: our opinions about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (which satirized all religions, not just Islam), like our opinions of the movie The Interview, are completely and utterly irrelevant in this context. If your condemnation of these attacks on free expression is followed by a comma and a "but...", you may be part of the problem.
Conservative writer Ian Tuttle sums up this position: such people are saying, as the uncharitable say to rape victims, "They had it coming." Camille Paglia, normally one of my favorite commentators, has been known to adopt a gentler form of this position, which sounds a lot like that of the "but" crowd with regard to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Paglia's point, when she talks about rape and its provocation, is a statistical one: the more provocatively a young woman dresses, the higher the chances that some man might attempt to rape her. Perhaps on a purely statistical level, Paglia's position makes sense and holds water, but on a moral level it makes no sense at all: if you believe the rapist to be, not an animal, but a human being exercising his freedom to choose, then you must believe that he is fundamentally responsible for his choice to rape a provocatively dressed woman. Because she's aware of this moral dimension, Paglia doesn't exonerate the rapist, whom she finds morally culpable. I'm not clear, though, on whether Paglia extends any moral culpability to the rape victim.
I would extend no such culpability to the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. To me, and apparently also to Ali Rizvi, the case is simple and clear-cut:
I was on a HuffPost Live segment this week discussing the aftermath of the Paris shootings. One of the guests said there is a "fine line" between free speech and offending people's sensitivities. My response was simple: the whole point of freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. This is the reason free speech is so ardently protected. Most of the revolutionary changes in history -- from the civil rights movement to the advent of major religions -- started with a lot of offended people. This is why Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. It's why Jesus was crucified, and Muhammad was expelled from Mecca by the Quraysh. Without the freedom to offend, there is no freedom of speech.
A similar point was recently made by my friend Jeff Hodges, and for his trouble he now finds himself being hectored by a troll who is obviously a member of the "but" crowd. Trolls begin conversations in a posture of attack, which is one way to know they are trolls. To be both a troll and a "but"-head, though, is a truly sad state of affairs.
I made the point, a decade ago, that we can't view Islamic terrorists as brutes or animals. Victim-blaming is appropriate if someone is mauled by a bear after provoking it, but a terrorist isn't a bear: a terrorist, being human, has the power to refrain from violence. This places the onus of responsibility entirely on the terrorist's head for whatever violence he or she commits. If this isn't clear to you, then you are lost.
To sum up, then: there are no "if"s, "and"s, or "but"s about the Charlie Hebdo situation. People in the "but" crowd will accuse me of a lack of subtlety, of an inability to see nuance and parse complexity. I, from my side of the aisle, see the "but" crowd as giving in to their cowardice and hiding behind nuance out of fear that their necks will be next. As Bill Maher, an unapologetic liberal, recently pointed out, it's imperative that liberals stand up for liberal principles like freedom of speech.
KIMMEL: They continued. The [Charlie Hebdo] editor said he would rather die than change with his right to free speech.
MAHER: For the crime of being satirists, for the crime of drawing cartoons. This has to stop, and unfortunately, a lot of the liberals, who are my tribe, I am a proud liberal—
KIMMEL: He's about to turn on you, so.
MAHER: No, I'm not turning on them, I'm asking them to turn toward the truth as I have been for quite a while. I'm the liberal in this debate. I'm for free speech. To be a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles. It's not my fault that the part of the world that is most against liberal principles is the Muslim part of the world.
There have been studies. We have facts on this. Treatment of women. They studied 130 different countries. 17 of the bottom 20 were Muslim countries. In 10 Muslim countries, you can get the death penalty just for being gay. They chop heads off in the square in Mecca. Well, Mecca is their Vatican City. If they were chopping the heads off of Catholic gay people, wouldn't there be a bigger outcry among liberals? I'd ask you.
So to bring it home to us, because we are are satirists, and I'm a satirist who deals with this subject particularly, it's kind of scary, that some people say you cannot make a joke. That's off-limits. We saw this with Kim Jong-un...
We have to stop saying when something like this that happened in Paris today, we have to stop saying, well, we should not insult a great religion. First of all, there are no great religions. They're all stupid and dangerous. And we should insult them and we should be able to insult whatever we want. That is what free speech is like.
Find the courage, O "but" crowd, to stand up for the principles you claim to espouse, and don't water down those principles by talking about how "we have a right to be offensive but no duty to be offensive." When the death toll becomes too high to ignore, you'll discover, much to your chagrin, that that right will indeed have become a duty—a way of defending your cherished civilization—if you have any integrity at all.