What Myths Hide
I’ve talked before about Chris Schoen’s music, specifically his musical interpretations of Les fleur du mal, but he’s also a very insightful, if extremely infrequent blogger. He demonstrates this again with a thoughtful post on the aftermath of last week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo, “Stop, In the Name of Speech!“, on the myths we invoke in the wake of tragedy, which allow us to avoid much more difficult realities:
The execution last week in Paris of 12 people in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has inflamed a foundational story known as the “myth of the free press.” …[T]o invoke a free press myth is not to say that there is no value to free speech, but rather that the more we view it in its mythological capacity, the less we are able to observe how it operates in real life. In mythological mode, free speech, like law-and-order, is absolute. In actual life, like law-and-order, free speech it is selectively applied (as often as not along unconscious biases), and balanced against other concerns.
His comparison of the recent murders of two NYPD officers to the murders to the murders of the French journalists is, I think, particularly interesting:
There are certain reliable myths that our culture, like every culture, repeats to itself in times of crisis. When a particular sacred value comes under attack, we ritually utter, virtually as one, the foundational story underlying that sacred value. Immediately following the murder of Officers Liu and Ramos in New York, a “Law-and-Order” myth was intoned, first by the mayor and police commissioner, then by the press, and finally, in its purest form, by the police officers union, who made it clear that the parlous and essential nature of police work permitted neither criticism of it nor, in fact, meaningful oversight.
.In both the rally to the barricades of the NYPD, and to those of Charlie Hebdo, a sacred principle is being held up as a conversation stopper. In the former case, where the conversation is stopped in the name of law and order, we find nascent fascism. In the latter, where the conversation is stopped in the name of conversation itself, we have something even more absurd. In the end, free speech is not so much about speech itself as it its about dialogue. Freedom to have the next word, but never the last word. Let the lovers of power marinate in their own sanctimony. We lovers of conversation have a higher calling.
My frustration with the conversation after last Wednesday’s horrendous crime has stemmed from two of its features: first, as Schoen puts it, the conversation has been “stopped in the name of the conversation itself,” as we saw almost immediately on this blog, and all over the internet, and second, the celebration of a cartoonish version of free speech or freedom of expression that hides behind its crudely-drawn contours the very real issues of freedom of speech that, for the most part, we ignore entirely. Freedom of speech, when it descends from the heights of original, unquestionable myth to present, earthly reality, finds itself confused and conflicted, pressed hard and uncomfortably against our myriad social and political concerns and ambitions. We’ve left little room for that complexity over the last several days (with a notable exception), in our rush to declare the dead heroes.
Schoen expresses some of that frustration much better than I can, and I recommend reading his whole post. I assume many here will disagree with his perspective, but I hope no one will deny that it is a valuable one.
Vive le blasphème! Ne faites pas attention aux manifestants menottés sur le trottoir.