Satire is not provocative, except in the way that it is supposed to be.

by J.R. Leonard

I keep seeing a whole range of arguments and analogies that assert that drawing blasphemous cartoons is comparable to being a jerk or to being purposefully provocative or exercising bad judgment in general. One of the best examples can be found at Vox, where Matt Yglesias does his mealy-mouthed best in offering this half-throated defense of a sensibly qualified, kind of-sort of support for the right free expression. In his words:

The legal right to free speech requires that people’s right to speak freely be respected legally. That means no legal sanction for publishing racist cartoons if you choose to publish them, and it means that the law must protect you from acts of retaliatory violence. But defense of the right does not in the slightest bit entail defense of the practice. You shouldn’t publish racist cartoons! That’s not free speech, that’s politeness and common human decency.

And further:

Viewed in a vacuum, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (or the Danish ones that preceded it) are hardly worthy of a stirring defense. They offer few ideas of value, contribute little to any important debates, and the world would likely have been a better place had everyone just been more polite in the first place.

Notice how Yglesias has set himself up at the arbiter of what is decent, what has value, and what would make the world a better place. This makes a bit of sense if you think about who Yglesias is and what Vox is. Vox a slightly left-of-center publication, but ideology hardly matters. Most of all what Vox is about is being sensible and being respectable. And that is fine. The world may need its Voxes, but the world needs its Charlie Hebdos as well. Implicit in Yglesias’ judgments is the belief that what is sensible and fair and decent is a settled matter, something to be explained to us. It is not. We are continually grappling with and fumbling towards the parameters of what is sensible and acceptable and what we ought to celebrate and what we ought to shun. This is the very reason that we affirm the right to free expression in the first place.

The other part of the argument is that people ought to have the write to say whatever they want, but that we are under no obligation to support that expression, especially when there is something unwise or untoward about that language. This sentiment is of course true. It is also, however, being misapplied in this particular case. Blasphemy is not racism. Drawing images of Muhammad, even mocking images, is not an inherently Islamophobic act. It is a heretical act, but that is a wholly different thing. To equate being heretical with being anti-Muslim is to affirm only the most fundamentalist and extremist version of the religion. Drawing an image of Muhammad is no more anti-Muslim than working on Sunday is anti-Christian or eating a hamburger is anti-Hindu. That is to say, in a liberal society people are free to honor their own religious beliefs in almost any way that they want, but they ought to be prevented from trying to universalize those beliefs and imposing religious restrictions on everyone else, either by law or even by mere social convention.

Yglesias quotes White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaking in response to the 2012 decision by Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of Muhammad:

In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it. And I think that that’s our view about the video that was produced in this country and has caused so much offense in the Muslim world.

Here we see Carney doing something similar to Yglesias in anointing himself some sort of expert on editorial decision-making. And like Yglesias, what makes this statement particularly cowardly is that he does not finish the thought. Why is an act of blasphemy at all an act questionable judgment? The only answer to that question is because the religious fundamentalist makes it so.

We really ought to question the idea that religious satire is unquestionably provocative. Yes, satire is provocative, but it is only provocative because some people choose to be provoked. That may sound like a purely semantic argument, but really it is an argument about causality. One thing to keep in mind is the difference between something being provocative and something being offensive. Personally, there is no end to things that I find offensive in this world. I find racism offensive. I find homophobia offensive. The very existence of Justin Bieber is a constant affront to all of my aesthetic and basic moral sensibilities. And yet, I have somehow managed to never pick up an AK and go attack a Klan rally, Westboro Baptist Church demonstration, or whatever salon Bieber goes to get his tips frosted.

To say that drawing images of the prophet inspires anger in the devout and the urge to commit violent retribution is only half true. One can be inspired to anger by outside causes, but the decision to turn that anger into action cannot be merely inspired. And provocation has a half-life. This was not a spontaneous act by a bunch of riled-up believers. The men who attacked the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo were not just magically inspired. Those men embarked on a journey that had purposeful steps and many opportunities for reversal. They made a choice and we ought to treat that choice as a wholly separate phenomenon from the choice that Charlie Hebdo made to publish blasphemous cartoons. The two are tragically linked, but simply not the same thing.

If you want to take Charlie Hebdo to task for being unkind to Muslims or for drawing racist caricatures, that’s fine. It is also a separate issue. The three men who stormed the offices and the people who gave them material and ideological support did not target Charlie Hebdo for being unkind to Muslims. They stormed those offices for the specific offense of showing irreverence to the prophet Mohammed. The fact that these men attacked a satirical magazine and not the offices of the National Front means something. To overlook this fact is to misdiagnose the problem.

Also worth noting is that for the religious extremist who finds cartoons of Mohammed provocative enough to bring a violent response, this is only one of many crimes. To the extremist, a woman walking in public insufficiently covered is a provocation. The list of religious affronts that bring the threat of death includes blasphemy, but it also includes apostasy, adultery and homosexuality; this list is far from exhaustive. Would anyone think to “question the judgment” of a Muslim convert, a sexually active woman, or an out gay man going about his or her business in a Western country? Most likely not, which is why it is a mistake to question the judgment of people exercising their right of free expression and their right to take nothing sacred.


[Picture via Wikipedia]

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53 Responses

  1. Owen says:

    When did stating an opinion become “anointing himself some sort of expert”? Yglesias isn’t THE arbiter but he is AN arbiter, just like the rest of us.

    • Saul Degraw says:

      I think the big issue is that Matt Y gets paid big bucks for giving his opinions and people generally think that there is value to this. Andrew Sullivan devotes an entire award to Matt Y which is for speaking truth to power. Allegedly.

      • LeeEsq says:

        Ygleasias is one of the best self-promoters of the early 21st century. His ability to turn himself from a Harvard hobby blogger to a really well paid professional one with zero real world experience is spectacular.

      • Saul Degraw says:


        He had lots of connections. His dad is a novelist and screenwriter and his mom was a journalist and I think she came from a real estate family.

        Fun fact, one of his grandparents wrote for the Daily Worker!

      • LeeEsq says:

        From Marxist to capitalist in three generations. Isn’t America grand?

      • Damon says:

        Well played Lee, well played! @leeesq

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    Matt Yglesias does his mealy-mouthed best in offering this half-throated defense of a sensibly qualified, kind of-sort of support for the right of free expression.

    So did you like the piece or not?

  3. Michael Drew says:

    Muhammed is not like a cheeseburger. A cheeseburger is entirely ours to eat, despite their injunction that they (and maybe we) not. Muhammed is theirs, and is certainly of deeper significance to them than to us. It’s much more reasonable that they’d like us not to mock him (and I’m not saying we should comply) than it is that they ask us not to eat a cheeseburger. So much so, that doing so in an unconsidered enough way, without enough due purpose, might indeed be an act lacking in judgement. Which I believe is what questions about Charlie Hebdo’s judgment so doing were about – not a blanket call for it never to happen. This is a figure of deep veneration for them. We shouldn’t necessarily mock him. Choosing to mock such a figure is an act of some weight, and should be undertaken with, paradoxically if you must, some gravity and sobriety and reflection. Maybe we should mock him, at certain times, in certain ways, for certain reasons. Figuring out what those are requires judgement. Therefore it’s possible to do it without the requisite judgment.

    And yeah, when people give their opinion about the propriety of a given action, they “set themselves us as the arbiter of” that thing. That’s just what that is. We all do that. Insignificant.

    • Mike Schilling says:

      Muhammed is not like a cheeseburger.

      Except chemically.

    • Glyph says:

      Muhammed is theirs

      In one way, this is true; in another, more accurate way, it makes no sense at all. Mohammed was a historical figure who has now become an idea, intangible. He no more “belongs” to anyone, than does a ghost, or the concept of the number three. George Washington and Jesus “belong” to Americans in much the same way; which is to say, they don’t, not really, even if they happen to venerate them.

      As an idea or a symbol, “Mohammed” is just as subject to inquiry and interrogation as any other.

      • Michael Drew says:

        Bottom line reality, you’re absolutely right. I feel that civility and cultural respect provides a strong reason to allow certain symbols to be symbolically owned by those by whom they are most revered, however. Sometimes, indeed, we do indeed mock other people’s possessions. But it requires judgement to know when to mock their most cherished possessions. And that is what I am arguing.

    • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      To say “Muhammed is theirs” is to relinquish any right to comment or criticize Muhammed without their OK.

      Muhammed is a symbol, and symbols belong to every creature with the intelligence to grok them.

      • Michael Drew says:

        No, it’s not to say that. Your guns are yours; doesn’t mean i relinquish my right to criticize you for what you do with them.

        Strictly speaking, though, as I said, you are right about whom symbols belong to. But, as I also said, I think there is a normative case to be made that certain symbols should be treated in a limited way as though they are owned by a set of people who highly revere them. Which is not to say that we never criticize them, or only do so as they allow, but it does mean, like with other examples of people’s prize possessions, that we show judgement about when and how and why to.

        It sucks that I had to write all that out twice.

      • Michael Drew says:

        …Three times, really. Twice in response to challenges that didn’t grok my argument.

      • Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Well, the obvious retort is, are you referring to my actual firearms, or the concept of firearms as a symbol? Because these are different things, and I would strenuously object to you telling me what I can & can not do with my firearms (in as much as I am not causing harm to others), but I lay no claim to the symbol firearms represent, other than to explain what they mean to me.

        To me they are a symbol of protection, independence, self-reliance. To others they are symbols of fear, violence, & death. As a gun owner, I claim guns as my symbol & no one is allowed to express negative representations of them except in the most respectful way.

        Which makes about as much sense as banning flag burning.

      • Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        That all said, I do agree that one should be respectful of symbols that have deep meaning to others in the general sense.

        Except when you are making a critical point about that symbol. Then you might very well need to be very disrespectful.

      • Michael Drew says:

        But, in fact, I can critique what you do with your firearms even though you own them – I can critique the fact that you choose to own them. But I choose not to out of respect for the kind of strong preference you have just expressed that I not do so.

        Likewise – and again, I don’t argue that religious symbols are actually owned like you own your guns, but just in a limited, analogical way – I think we should choose to treat symbols of religions to a limited extent as though they are owned in a limited way by their respective religionists, such that we don’t mock them or give offense over them without at least some good reason, and not needlessly provocatively. (And I’m not saying that Charlie Hebdo did or didn’t do that/fail to do that.)

      • Michael Drew says:

        …That latter comment, in a nutshell, is really all I’m saying. Roughly.

      • Michael Drew says:

        …To be clear, I certainly wasn’t initially clear that I meant “Muhammed is theirs” in this limited way that draws some norms from but is far short of ownership like we actually own possessions in the West. I thought that would kind of be implied by context. But I understand it wasn’t.

        But beyond that, I don’t know why we would think that granting/observing ownership or possession would somehow put various relations between humans and objects beyond criticism. Someone owns the New York Times in the full-stop, no-doubt-about-it Western sense of material ownership. We still criticize it, and them, for how they use it (short of harming people). It;s even someone’s prize possession.

        It’s not even clear to me when we would, absent other reason, choose to respect symbols (or possessions) that have deep meaning for people, and when we wouldn’t. The New York Times is someone’s prize possession – and a symbol – that has deep meaning for them. But I don’t think we give it much in the way of presumptive respect. It has to earn it from us day in and day out.

        Other symbols/possessions – religious ones come to mind – it seems like we accord respect to up until there is reason not to out of recognition for some even deeper-felt meaning than The New York Times even has for its owners. It’s about figuring out what kinds of valuing and significance that people give to objects (whether physical or ideal) to give something of a wide berth to (i.e. respect more than others up to a point) just because they’re that deeply felt to people.

        It requires judgement. And it’s very legitimately different from person to person.

      • j r says:

        …I think there is a normative case to be made that certain symbols should be treated in a limited way as though they are owned by a set of people who highly revere them.
        I would like to hear that case.

        Muslims revere the person of the prophet Muhammad. Hindus revere the cow. You have said that Muhammad is not like a cheeseburger. So, what is the normative argument for treating them differently?

      • Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        I think we have an understanding. But recognize that there is a massive difference between you critiquing my ownership of firearms, and you insisting the state come to relieve me of them, or you doing that yourself.

        Although I agree with j-r that I’d like to hear your argument about limited ownership.

      • Michael Drew says:

        “Muhammad” doesn’t transmute its meaning when brought across a cultural frontier nearly as much as “cow” does. To a large extent, Muhammed remains theirs because our only use for it is to treat it as the symbol they take it to be; “cow” (well, really just cow, as here “cow” is something like “the significance of cow in Hindu culture”) has other meanings here that we can in very good faith say don’t treat the symbol that “cow” is there.

        IN essence, largely everywhere mUhammed = “Muhammed”, where as outside of a specifically Hindu context cow itself doesn’t even invoke the Hindu symbol of “cow.”

        To put it more simply, when we invoke Muhammed we necessarily invoke the Muslim religious context in which “Muhammed” is sacred; when we invoke a cheeseburger, we don’t invoke the Hindu context in which “cow” is sacred (unless we
        re really putting our minds to it).

        (And if we are really putting our minds to it in that way, then yeah, the argument holds. It is in fact disrespectful of Hindus to eat a cheeseburger in order deliberately to transgress what is sacred in Hinduism, and we should accord that aspect of cowness – the holiness in Hinduism of the cow as apprehended in Hindu thought – the same respect we accord Muhammed. It’s just that, in a Western context the symbol doesn’t attach as uniquely to the object of cow as it does to the object of Muhammed.)

    • j r says:


      @glyph and @mad-rocket-scientist responded pretty much exactly as you would have. That said, I agree that certain groups have a greater claim to certain symbols and ideas. This, however, is about more than just symbols and ideas. It is about control of the public sphere. You have the right to weigh in on the symbols and ideas that define your identity, but you don’t get to dictate what happens to those ideas in the wider world.

      If Stephane Charbonnier had donned a sandwich board with those cartoons and gone walking through the Muslim quarters of France looking to provoke people face to face and some group of men beat him to within an inch of his life, I would be one of those people saying, ‘obviously assault is not OK, but dude showed some questionable judgment.” Again, there is a difference between being directly provocative and be merely offensive. If you cannot print questionable things on the pages of a satirical magazine, then where can you?

      • Michael Drew says:


        @glyphand@mad-rocket-scientist responded pretty much exactly as you would have.

        I’m taking “you” there as you (not me).

        Substantively, you are broadly confused. Expressing a strong opinion about what you’d like to (not) have said about the symbols you worship is not dictating what is said about them. It’s not even attempting to dictate it. The people who are attempting to dictate it are the violent jihadists and people trying to get laws passed enfiorcing these desires – only them – not just anyone who will say they’d strongly rather you not miock their exalted symbols.

        And heeding such peaceful requests is not being dictated to. It’s choosing to respect someone’s wisheds and values (as much as you can/think is warranted).

  4. Jaybird says:

    At the risk of repeating myself, the main thing that I find surprising is the difference between the arguments over Immersion (Piss Christ) and The Satanic Verses.

    There was a thread talking about the importance of respect in the latter debate that did not occur in the former.

  5. Will Truman says:

    I’m not used to saying this, but of all the pieces I’ve read on Hebdo Charlie, I think Yglesias comes the closest to reflecting my own views on the matter. What differences there are, are mostly a matter of emphasis.

    What’s sensible and fair is not a “settled matter”… but a large part of the debate over blasphemy generally is trying to settle it, as best we can (in a world of seven billion, or a country of over 300 million). That it is likely to be perpetually unsettled is a large part of why we allow freedom of speech in principle. It’s also why I am inclined to rally around speech – even speech I disagree with – when that freedom is threatened (whether by government, mob action, or terroristic acts).

    As they say, though, criticism of free speech is free speech. As is criticism of the criticism. And on and on. I am myself rather uncomfortale with blasphemy for its own sake. The Hebdo Charlie cartoons may have had the right target, from what Mark Thompson is saying, though did so in ways that (I gather) offended Muslims of all stripes. And (at least arguably) needlessly so. Such was (or should have been) Hebdo Charlie’s right. Whatever disagreements I had with them, though, remain a matter of opinion (and have been overtaken by events).

    • LWA says:

      And this will not be “settled” until we have negotiated it with the rising non-western cultures.

      The tension between liberal democracy and conservatism has been in negotiation for centuries; We are just now entering into a global village where we’re drawn into close contact with people who have never heard of Voltaire or give a rip about the freedom of the press, and who don’t necessarily even agree with our conception of what “rights” are.

  6. Christopher Carr says:

    Whenever something like this happens, I usually like to point out that some people are just assholes.

  7. Don Zeko says:

    I feel quite comfortable stating that, by all evidence available to me, it seems plain that Mohammed did not, in fact, hear the word of God, and thus was either lying, mentally ill, or in some other way confused about the nature of what he was hearing and saying. This statement is blasphemy to the Charlie Hebdo murderers, and to a great many others as well. It is also not at all the same thing as running a cartoon of Mohammad engaging in various sex acts in order to get a rise out of people. Beyond that, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are part of a larger discourse that includes the Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s and Bill Maher’s of the world that don’t simply mock: they make all sorts of blanket statements about a religion with hundreds of millions of adherents. You want this conversation to just be about blasphemy, but I don’t see how to separate it from other types of speech that people find offensive.

    • Jaybird says:

      When Mohammed returned to Medina in triumph, only two people were put to death.

      They were both satirists.

    • j r says:

      This statement is blasphemy to the Charlie Hebdo murderers, and to a great many others as well. It is also not at all the same thing as running a cartoon of Mohammad engaging in various sex acts in order to get a rise out of people.

      And yet, those men and men like them would murder you just the same.

      the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are part of a larger discourse that includes the Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s and Bill Maher’s of the world that don’t simply mock: they make all sorts of blanket statements about a religion with hundreds of millions of adherents. You want this conversation to just be about blasphemy, but I don’t see how to separate it from other types of speech that people find offensive.

      And yet, like I said in the piece, those men did not attack the National Front or Ali or Maher or whoever the French equivalent of Ali and Maher are. In a country in which there are any number of people making actual Islamaphobic statements and an organized political movement that is quite open in its opposition to Muslim immigration, those men chose to attack the offices of a satirical magazine. You can gloss over that fact by bringing up all that larger discourse, but the fact remains.

  8. Saul Degraw says:

    “Most of all what Vox is about is being sensible and being respectable. And that is fine. The world may need its Voxes, but the world needs its Charlie Hebdos as well.”

    Yes, I support the existence of Maggie Gyllenhaal. Oh wait you said Voxes, not Foxes.

    The on-line liberals and left have been engaged in an issue of freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism for the past few years. I have been part of this as well. This usually happens when a conservative or right-winger gets shocked, shocked that a liberal is telling him or her that they are unfunny and wrong. The right-wing response is usually to bring up a shield of free speech for reasons that are inexplicable to the left.

    But there is also a long-standing fight on the left about whether free speech is a liberal goal or whether inclusiveness should be a liberal goal. I’ve seen a lot of people confuse the idea of a hate crime and think that hate speech is also illegal. Most non-Americans I’ve met have thought that the first Amendment is absurd in its radical levels of free speech protections and are kind of shocked about our vigorous defenses for libel and defamation charges.

    But I generally concur with what you are saying but I’ve never been Matt Y’s biggest fan on the left.

    • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      free speech is a liberal goal or whether inclusiveness should be a liberal goal

      I can not understand why the left seems to think these are conflicting goals.

      • LWA says:

        Maybe not contradictory, but frequently in tension.

        How does liberal inclusiveness accommodate those whose idea of free speech differs from ours?

      • j r says:

        How does liberal inclusiveness accommodate those whose idea of what is acceptable dress for a woman differs from ours?

      • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Free speech feeds inclusiveness. If a person/group feels excluded by the presence of free speech, then I think they need to re-evaluate their commitment to inclusiveness.

      • greginak says:

        MRS, the obvious rub is that some exercising free speech can be saying ” we don’t want any ( insert racial epithet here). Keep the F out. You people are a bunch of ( insert nasty stereotype here). That is free speeching but it does not encourage inclusiveness.

      • LWA says:

        I’m thinking more along the lines that liberal democracy by design is intended to be sort of “open source”- without any fixed truths, except what is determined by majority vote.

        A lot of the commentary here and elsewhere sort of assumes the framework of a westernized liberal democracy tolerating and absorbing illiberal immigrants who are then inculcated into the moral norms of the majority. Which is the story of America, and what we are familiar with. More importantly, we assume that our moral norms about rights are universal and self evidently true, when they are in fact particular to a minority of the world’s population.

        But it isn’t necessarily going to remain that way. The French are dealing with majority-immigrant populations in places like Marseilles, and the Germans are as well. I live in a majority-minority city, work in a majority-minority office, and my client works out of her office in Shanghai.

        This is not a scaremongering comment; its more to emphasize that the interaction between liberalism and traditional norms requires negotiation and mutual assent, not unilateral imposition.

      • LeeEsq says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist, free speech can be used to exclude marginalized groups from society. In the United States, there used to be a big market for what can basically be called racist knick-knacks of African-Americans. Europe used to have a similar market for anti-Semitic knick-knacks. Producing and owning these racist knick-knacks were ostensibly free speech and free expression but they did a lot to exclude and marginalize African-Americans from American society for many reasons.

        The average French Muslim is much more religious and adheres to a stricter disciplinary culture than most other French people, which stereotypically is an irreligious, irreverent, and libertine place. Making fun of religious people might be free speech but if the majority of the body politics mocks religion than the devote minority is going to have a hard time integrating into the body politic.

      • LeeEsq says:

        @lwa has it right. The basis of philosophical liberalism is that there is no such things as a good life. Rather, every adult should be allowed to live life as he or she sees fit and quietly discuss their version of the good life with other people. Problem is that many forms of the good life not only claim to be the one true form of the good life but are inconsistent with other forms in material ways. A good life that preaches strict discipline is not going to get along with a more libertine version. We see that tension between conservative Christians and the more liberal people in the United States. In Europe, you get a racial component added to the mix because the stricter disciplinary people are more likely to come from immigrant backgrounds.

      • morat20 says:

        The tension is pretty simple.

        If you say something stupid, people will think you’re an idiot. If you say something racist, people will think you’re a racist.

        You’re free to speak whatever you wish, but not free from people judging you on it. Not like “in a court of law” but in the “I’m forming an opinion of you” way.

        So, you know, people can and do say dumb stuff or racist stuff or insulting stuff and it can drive people away from a community. I mean, if everyone around you is spouting KKK slogans, most folks won’t stick around.

        The place this is actually tricky is stuff like workplaces — places that are NOT the public square or not fully the public square. Go be as racist as you want on the steps of the Capitol, but if you spout that in your company’s breakroom you’re probably gonna be fired.

      • James Hanley says:

        The basis of philosophical liberalism is that there is no such things as a good life.

        I suspect you mean “the” good life?

      • LeeEsq says:

        Yes, yes I do.

      • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I think @morat20 is getting at my concern more than LWA or LeeEsq is.

        My concern is, as always, the use of organizational authority to silence speech. Hate speech laws or campus speech codes do not, despite the best intentions of their proponents, create inclusive environments (mainly because it is hard to have an objective standard). They tend instead to create echo chambers.

        Now Lee does have a valid point that a society can, through the use of speech, be massive dicks toward a minority. And yes, this does concern me because it does cause some measure of harm to a minority & that runs counter to my beliefs (tyranny of the majority, and all that). Still, overall, free speech is far & away better & more inclusive than speech codes/laws, since it lets everyone air their opinions & allows for discourse, and hopefully, understanding. Speech codes/laws don’t stop objectionable speech, they just drive it underground, where it can fester and allow those who agree with it to feel oppressed & marginalized.

        So, I can see LWA’s tension (which is probably a good thing), but not the contradiction implied by Saul.

      • j r says:

        Now Lee does have a valid point that a society can, through the use of speech, be massive dicks toward a minority. And yes, this does concern me because it does cause some measure of harm to a minority & that runs counter to my beliefs (tyranny of the majority, and all that)

        What exactly is the concern? I cannot think of a single instance in which freedom of speech is the primary means by which any majority group harms any minority group.

        Take the case of white supremacy in the United States. The KKK used to be a powerful, tyrannical organization, but not because they had the right to assemble and burn crosses and speak against blacks. The KKK was a threat because, if you stepped out of line, they might show up at your house in the middle of the night, drag you in the woods and kill you. And if they did that, you or your family would have no legal or political recourse to stop them or bring them to justice. None of that has much to do with freedom of speech.

        Fast forward to 2014, the KKK still has the right to assemble and burn crosses and speak against blacks, but because all that other stuff has changed, the KKK has faded from a major terror organization to a bunch of marginalized outcasts. I know that people get riled up whenever the Klan wants to march, but allowing the Klan to march at this point in time does more to expose them as a fringe organization with very little power than would restricting their rights to march.

      • Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        The concern is not the speech itself, it’s the fact that when a majority uses speech to degrade a minority, there are commonly two associated effects. The majority can gain either official power to oppress the minority, or power can unofficially turn a blind eye toward the oppression.

        Yesterday I was listening to NPR & they were talking to the NYPD commissioner about how police treat black people. The NYPD commissioner agreed that blacks get unfair treatment, but he excused it by saying everyone treats black people unfairly & he wasn’t going to be the whipping boy for it. I think they ran out of time, because Mike Segal didn’t counter that further. It is, however, a sign of unofficial oppression. The NYPD should, as agents of the state, work to treat everyone equally, despite what the rest of society does (even if it is pushing a boulder up a hill). Because if they take the lazy way, then society sees the state treating blacks unfairly and takes it as license to do the same (viscous circle & all that).

        None of this means we should use the power of the state to limit speech in order to protect a minority, but rather we should encourage more speech to encourage less dickish behavior.

      • DMM says:

        The KKK only became marginalized insofar as they became redundant. If you look closely at the GOP, you see what the KKK became.

        If we actually had taken a stand against them and their “right” to assemble to strip others of their rights (oh, right, those “rights” don’t count) then things would be a lot different. The GOP would still be the party of Eisenhower, and the fascists would be in prison where they belong.

  9. This

    If you want to take Charlie Hebdo to task for being unkind to Muslims or for drawing racist caricatures, that’s fine. It is also a separate issue.

    and to a limited extent the rest of the paragraph that follows it, seems to go against what the rest of the OP is arguing for. It seems that the critics you cite are actually calling Charlie Hebdo to task for being unkind to Muslims and/or for drawing racist caricatures.* I agree it’s a separate issue from, say, freedom of speech, but if that’s what they’re doing, it’s the issue.

    *I’m not sure I’d call them racist, either. But that appears to be Matt Y’s diagnosis, although I did not read the actual article.

    • j r says:

      Yes and no. My point is that there may be something in the Charlie Hebdo’s body of publication that some might consider racist. Much of that is subjective. What is not subjective is that those men attacked Charlie Hebdo, not for being racist, but for being blasphemous. My problem with the Yglesias point of view is that it tries to equate being insufficiently respectful of someone’s religion with being racist when they are two separate things.

      I could have expressed that better.

      • @j-r

        Actually, I think you expressed it just fine, I was the one who could’ve expressed it better. I was agreeing with you on that particular point (about whether the magazine was “racist” and whether the writers were attacked for “being racist” as opposed to “being blasphemous”).

        Also, I think I was being a bit unfair in my comment. I was jumping on a point where you were actually conceding something close to my own view. I think I would be at least a little annoyed if someone had done the same thing to me.