Sunday, February 01, 2015

Interesting Points on Free Speech by Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat

Extreme Circumstances
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In an article for the magazine New York, "Charlie Hebdo Point-Missers Miss Point" (January 9, 2015), Jonathan Chait explains his support for Charlie Hebdo as follows:
In this case, the content of Charlie Hebdo's work is not the issue. The issue is the right of publication. Given the fact that violent extremists threaten to kill any journalist who violates their interpretation of Islam, establishing the freedom (I argue) requires committing the blasphemy. To argue, as some have, that the threat is wrong, but that journalists should avoid blasphemy out of prudence allows the extremists to set the rules.

Ross Douthat, writing a bit more patiently than me, laid this out more explicitly. Douthat was very clear about his argument: Vulgar expression that would otherwise be unworthy of defense becomes worthy if it is made in defiance of violent threats.
Let's look at Douthat's article, "The Blasphemy We Need" (New York Times, January 7, 2015), in which he says the following:
[W]e are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where . . . . the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could . . . and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it's the kind that clearly serves a free society's greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it's something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn't really a liberal civilization any more.
This is the extreme situation in which we find ourselves, namely, threatened on a core value of our civilization, i.e., free speech. Extreme circumstances sometimes call for extreme reactions, and this is one of those extreme times.

Otherwise, just imagine what we would not be allowed to say . . .

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