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The Case for Civility Campaigns After Charlie Hebdo

Blasphemous and offensive actions can be properly resisted without resorting to censorship.
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In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, several writers urged restraint, to avoid letting the actions of a few, very dangerous, extremists warp our relationship to all Muslims. But others saw the killings as a sign of a growing threat to public discourse, one that isn’t fueled exclusively, or even primarily, by Islamists.

At Spiked, editor Brendan O’Neill calls the murders of Charlie Hebdo writers and cartoonists “the barbaric conclusion to the new intolerance.” The Islamic extremists who answered cartoons with bullet, are, in O’Neill’s estimation, simply the ideological cousins of those who take offense at offense:

For the tragic fact is that this barbarism fits a depressing pattern in modern Europe. It speaks to the modern trend for seeking to destroy, crush or censor commentary, art or literature that offends small groups of people. It is a more extreme form – a far more extreme form – of something that has become tragically commonplace: the waging of intolerant wars against things judged by certain people to be offensive. Whether it’s mobs successfully having art exhibitions shut down or online gangs getting newspaper articles withdrawn or TV shows pulled, ours is an era in which the feelings of the offended are all too often elevated above the freedoms of thought and expression. The Paris massacre is a fouler, bloodier version of this urge to destroy material that offends people’s sensibilities.

O’Neill refrains from giving a single specific example of the kind of cultural warriors he sees as equivalent to armed shooters, but the proponents of trigger warnings, the petitioners against Grand Theft Auto V, and even the people tweeting against #manspreading arguably fit his criteria. Especially given that “escalates to violence” isn’t one of them.

In other recent pieces, O’Neill has highlighted “twitter riots” that force television cancellations as dangerous to speech, and singled out the Grand Theft Auto protests as the apotheosis of civility run amok,

It is bad enough when Victim Feminist campaigners depict the streets of London or New York City as terribly scary places for women – but to bemoan the abuse of women on the streets of GTA is just surreal, given that those streets are mere pixels, the women are just graphics, and the abuse is entirely imagined.

Arguing that campaigns for civility, against catcalling, against graphic sexual content in the public sphere, against “microaggressions,” differ only in degree, not in kind, from the Charlie Hebdo murders requires casting every cultural war as an exercise in annihilation.

In this schema, anyone pushing against offensive, crude, blasphemous, or otherwise objectionable material really has only one goal—the silence of the problematic speaker. Even those activists who refrain from explicit violence are, in O’Neill’s estimation, attempting to commit symbolic violence, directed toward destroying the opposition.

Activists do organize boycotts (against both products and people) and question the appropriateness of offering certain speakers your platform (refusing to amplify someone’s voice is not the same as silencing it). These tactics do make certain speech acts more costly, but they would be better met by a defense of the behavior or speech in question (which most colleges cancelling commencement speakers refused to offer) than an objection to all public condemnation as censorship.

O’Neill forgets that civility campaigners don’t just have the goal of protecting the delicate eyes and ears of the innocent. Often, activists have the good of the person giving offense in mind as well. Sometimes we offend out of ignorance of the implications of our speech, and loud opposition gives us the chance to reevaluate our actions.

In my own life, I didn’t know that “gyp” was a verb derived from a slur for the Roma people, until someone pointed out I was being offensive when I complained that D.C. cabbies were gypping me by pretending their meters were broken. Other people’s condemnation of my speech gave me the chance to change it.

It’s healthy to be reminded that an act does give offense or cause pain to others, and that these acts demand some other justification than “opposing political correctness.” Casual or thoughtless offense isn’t praiseworthy—as G.K. Chesterton says in The Man Who Was Thursday, “Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.”

Ross Douthat singles out Charlie Hebdos work as important because it was met with violence. Transgressing limits that are policed with lethal force is an act of defiance that denies “the violent … veto power over liberal civilization.” But, once the danger is neutralized, not all offensive things need to go on being said or done for their own sake.

And, sometimes, they need to be opposed for the sake of the perpetrator, not just the person offended. The biggest problem with “manspreading” (the act of sitting, legs splayed, on the subway, preventing others from sitting beside you) is not that it places the people annoyed in danger, or that it prevents them from getting to work. It’s that it’s callous.

It’s not good for the person sitting this way to spend their commutes cultivating indifference to others’ needs and placing the burden on others to ask for a little courtesy. The point of calling out and opposing such a practice isn’t to solve the problem of congestion on public transit, but to oppose culture’s coarsening effects on us, wherever they occur.

Civility campaigners aren’t protecting victims from villains, but trying to foster a conversation about how to live well, and what constraints on our own actions we should accept, not due to fear of legal or violent reprisals, but out of positive concern for others.

This is not a project of censorship and violence, trying to prevent exposure to what offends us, but a project of education and charity, trying to know and love our neighbors well enough to only offend when necessary, tempering our actions by cultivating empathy for and understanding of the pain of others.

When pressure comes through boycotts or a simple “You really shouldn’t say that” there’s an invitation to dialogue that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not offered by their murderers. We shouldn’t fear giving an answer to the people who question us, or be ashamed that, once we listen to their objections, we might change our behavior.



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