Sticks and Stones

Hebdo cartoonist Bernard 'Tignous' Verlhac in his cartoon-covered coffin.

Hebdo cartoonist Bernard ‘Tignous’ Verlhac in his cartoon-covered coffin.

Last Sunday, the streets of Paris filled with more than a million people marching to commemorate the attack by jihadis on the headquarters of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The media swooned over the ostensible show of unity. French and foreign dignitaries joined arms for a photo op. Everyone agreed, freedom of speech must not be defeated by terrorism.

According to a piece in The Independent, one marcher held up a sign with the slogan: “They wanted to bring France to its knees. Instead they brought Europe to its feet.” That is certainly a stirring phrase. One flashes back to the scene in “Casablanca” in which French exiles silence singing Nazis with a stirring chorus of La Marseilles. But what precisely does the sentiment mean? Aside from a mood, certain to be fleeting, in what way has Europe risen to its feet?

But wait. Is it “freedom of speech” or “freedom of expression”? The U.S. Bill of Rights uses the former phrase, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the latter. The French revolutionaries of 1789 stated things somewhat more specifically:

The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

Even so, one could quibble. Does an emotion qualify as an opinion? Although the merit of open communication in limited forms has been recognized from ancient times (for example in democratic Athens), free speech as a human right is a fairly modern, liberal idea, still malleable in its meaning and application. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC springs to mind.

In my last post, I speculated — from the perspective of the Fourth Way — on some of the larger forces underlying both Hebdo’s editorial stance and the actions of militant Islamists. Now I would like to pause for a moment to unpack the concept of “free speech” just a little, or at least raise some questions that may prove fruitful.

Speech vs Expression

Is not the pragmatic merit of “free speech” for the body politic related to reason and intelligibility? We can view speech as a sharing of perspectives contributing to the sentience of the whole. If we accept this premise, it would seem that the arousal of passions — both libidinal and fanatical — is antithetical to the wisdom of unfettered speech. Or, on the other hand, is speech merely sublimated violence, a form of individual or group power struggle? If we fail to impose on speech the requirement of reason, then it may become just another weapon in the arsenal of unconscious aims. Viewed in this light, it becomes obvious why the Left especially (but not exclusively) talks out of both sides of its mouth about free speech. Of course, certain alt-Right circles are equally deluded with their “no voice, free exit” nonsense. Voice is feedback. Even a king needs intelligent feedback.

Could one codify a reasonable law that places limits on expression, but allows even unpopular speech? It may be possible to do so, however in a healthy society that is lead by the example of men with conscience, such a codification may not be necessary; notions of decorum, politeness, or consideration may serve the same purpose. In a healthy society an angry, hateful rant against other members of your community might be considered as socially acceptable as defecating on your front lawn at noon. Is it “freedom of speech” to shout jihad in a crowded mosque? Is it “freedom of speech” to obscenely denigrate everything sacred to a member of one’s community in order to humiliate him for your amusement? What is the difference between an intelligent discussion on the merits and demerits of Islam, versus what Hebdo published? If we are to promote free speech as a human right, or even as a matter of wise policy, these questions cannot go unanswered.

Freedom or License?

Perhaps, as well, everything that contemporary man attaches to the concept of “freedom” needs to be examined. Is mere license to be considered synonymous with freedom? The word “freedom” seems to operate as a post-hypnotic suggestion for post-Enlightenment moderns. Merely pronouncing the word conjures up a host of carefully cultivated associations. One must be “free” to be a slave to one’s habits. Freedom from external tyranny is considered an unquestionable good; to suggest one should have freedom from one’s internal tyranny brands one a reactionary in polite modern society. Even the mere suggestion that lack of self-mastery is a form of slavery leads to indignant objections like, “What are you some kind of Nazi?”

Much like a sleeping dreamer, a person in a hypnotic trance cannot see contradictions or impossibilities. From an article in The Guardian: “Leaders of all the religions marched behind a banner bearing the slogan ‘We are Charlie’.” It is difficult to come up with a reasonable way to square that statement with Charlie Hebdo’s previous emissions, including a cartoon of the Holy Trinity engaged in anal-sex, without coming away with the conclusion that a) religious leaders do not take their own religions seriously or b) there is some kind of hypnotic trance state at work here. What would make a man proudly, pumping his fist in the air, take a stance so utterly opposed to his own beliefs? That seems like a perverse sort of freedom.

Further, the world leaders who met in Paris for a photo-op adjacent to the popular demonstrations mostly used their time at the pulpit to reinforce the necessity of a vast, and growing, security state. In a joint memo, the interior ministers of more than a dozen major nations expressed the need to, “….step up the detection and screening of travel movements by European nationals crossing the European Union’s external borders.” It seems that there should be no check whatsoever on the ability to publish deliberately crude nonsense, but that one’s ability to move from place to place should be under constant scrutiny.

The ministers also emphasized that “the partnership of the major Internet providers is essential to create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible.” The interior ministers themselves give no guidance as to where the line will be drawn between useful, responsible speech and terror-mongering. They will, however, require ISPs to make this delicate discrimination. For the masses of men, the irony of this situation has been hidden under a thick coating of bumper-sticker sentiment. Europe has risen to its feet to save freedom, after all.

In 4th Way Work, we understand that “free expression” of negative emotions simply leads to greater identification with negative states. It creates a feedback loop of self-reinforcing negativity that is impervious to reason, and has a negative impact on the mental and physical health of the individual, shutting down the possibility of further development. It’s also an irresponsible way of relating to other people. The situation is not any different when we go beyond the individual to consider the community; it’s merely a matter of scale.

The Said and the Unsaid

I think it goes without saying that fanatics see speech as just another weapon in their arsenal. For jihadis, “free expression” includes the freedom to murder those they consider infidels. The vague shape of something intelligible is visible, however, beneath this inarticulate lunacy. Clearly, many Muslims feel a cultural threat from the West. They perceive that given the chance, globalism would be happy to absorb Islam, fold it in with pornography, perversion, video games, and worship of celebrities, until their faith is on equal footing with Miley Cyrus twerking. Muslims are not incorrect in this apprehension; many on the Right share these unqualified reservations about neo-liberal globalist modernity. We cannot, and must not, support the barbarity of radical Islam, but we have mixed feelings. We also cannot support modernity in light of its many failings. We find ourselves stuck sitting “between two stools”, as it were. We cannot see the “third force”, the alternative.

Perhaps the alternative is not to choose between the “sides” we are being presented with. Need Charlie Hebdo be our symbol of free speech? Is it even an apt symbol for speech?

In truth, there is no fire in my belly in the writing of this post. None of the existing post-hypnotic suggestions are working to inflame my passions. To write an article that cannot, by its very nature, be swept up by the zombie horde, that provides no easy slogans, that arouses no righteous emotions, seems antithetical to my entire way of being up to this point. So why do I write? Perhaps because I see the circular pointlessness of continuing as I have. Perhaps I have already become less able to lie to myself. Like any addict, I long to take up the pipe and inhale deeply the fog of passion, but I already know where the high would leave me. I no longer wish to be fuel for a machine.

John Glanton (@ThenTheJudgement) wrote:

You don’t need a society homogeneous enough that everyone agrees. You need one homogeneous enough that opponents can disagree in good faith.

While we may not entirely agree on how much or what kind of homogeneity is beneficial, Mr. Glanton touches on something wise: the true boundaries of a community are coterminous with the boundaries of reciprocal communication. In the interest of good faith, and something higher than chaos, let us work to speak and listen, and cease to use words as weapons.

One thought on “Sticks and Stones

  1. It is hard to see at least for me the Charlie Hebdo event as something that brings the nation together. Like Spetember 11th here in the states it was something everyone rallied around and as time passed it slowly faded into the background. People will forget this unfortunate event and it will be business as usual. Speeches are nice and uplifting but in the end nothing changes.

    Liked by 1 person

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