Just when one might have thought the Charlie Hebdo stuff could not have gotten more ridiculous, this appears in the Buffalo News. Now, Jeff Simon is an opinion-maker of sorts, but the more intelligent people I know tend to read what he says, and run in the other direction.
I certainly hope they will do so in this instance. Because the cartoons are not brilliant–even the cartoonist himself claims that they are really nothing more than the doodlings of children. And as much as Mr. Simon claims that editor Gerard Biar is some kind of champion of free expression, both of them miss the irony (Biar by saying it; Simon by agreeing with it) in M. Biar’s own words:
On the other hand, I am quite critical of newspapers that are published in democratic countries.
The cartoon is not just a little figure [precisely what its creator claims it is]; it is a symbol. It’s the symbol of freedom of speech, of freedom of religion, and democracy and secularism.
It is this symbol that these newspapers refuse to publish. This is what they must understand. And when they refuse to publish this cartoon, when they blur it out, when they decline to publish it, they blur out democracy, secularism, freedom of religion and they insult the citizenship.
Actually, what M. Biar and Mr. Simon want is nothing of the sort. They want a free pass to insult whomever they want (and they are far from champions of “freedom of religion”, no matter what they claim)–and they want to inhibit the freedom of those who choose not to insult their fellow human beings.
When you insist that someone must publish something, that is as much an infringement of their rights as saying they must not publish something else. M. Biar and Mr. Simon champion the right to publish what they see fit (demonstrating Mr. Simon’s assertion in his article that “we don’t really want others to have their say. It’s ourselves that we always want to prevail.”). Nor do they recognize the equal and opposite right to refrain from publishing what might offend an audience, or what the publishers themselves find offensive or contrary to their beliefs.
M. Biar and Mr. Simon do not want a free press. They want a press that agrees with them. They do not want media to make intelligent assessments about what to say, when to say it, and how to say it so that it can inform and enlighten.
They just want the freedom to insult. And they want to take away the freedom of others from refraining from insulting their fellow human beings.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution enshrines four foundational rights: religious liberty, free expression, peaceable assembly, and redress of grievance. They are closely related, and like all relatives, run the risk of occasional conflict. There are times when the exercise of one of these rights by particular parties may infringe on the rights of another–whether the same right of the other, or a different one. The assertion that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should be published by all newspapers in all democratic countries is an expression of a desire to curtail the free expression of ideas (because it forces the expression of ideas that certain publishers find repugnant, and as a result choose not to promulgate).
The idea that publishing these cartoons furthers the cause of religious liberty is beyond belief: publishing these images beyond the seedy confines of Charlie Hebdo serves no purpose but to insult practitioners of whichever religion this so-called “newspaper” chooses to ridicule (they do claim to be equal opportunity in their juvenile insults). Perhaps it even, in its praise of “secularism”, intends to violate the religious freedom of the practitioners of any and all faiths, by intimidation and fear-mongering.
But the demand that these adolescent sketches, which don’t rise above boys’ room graffiti, be published in every newspaper with origins in a democratic country, is no championing of freedom. It’s championing of repression of those who would prefer to deal respectfully with their fellow human beings, even in the face of otherness.
Mr. Simon calls the choice not to offend “Awful. Just awful,” apparently because the ability to give offense is among the “finest Western values.”
It seems to me that restraint in giving offense is perhaps a more noble value.