Know Your Enemy – Charlie Hebdo and The Freedom of Speech
By Duncan Whitmore
In previous essays posted on this blog, I have often pointed out that opponents of private property (and of capitalism specifically) believe, incorrectly, that to advocate for a free society is to crave an orgy of individualism, greed and selfishness in which each person grabs as many riches for himself as possible while leaving those less fortunate to starve.
Empirically, of course, we know that private property orders have solved the problems of poverty and hunger more than any other socioeconomic alternative, for the reason that the wealth accumulated by the rich takes the form of capital goods that produce more and more consumer goods at lower and lower prices for ordinary people. In other words, even if someone wanted to accumulate as much wealth as possible for himself his only avenue of doing so is to serve the needs of others.
That aside, however, the theoretical error of the anti-capitalists is to confuse permissibility on the one hand with promotion on the other. Yes, capitalism and freedom give you the right to be selfish and greedy, but they do not demand that you be so – you are just as free to give away all of your wealth as you are to accumulate as much of it for yourself as possible. Thus, libertarians are advocating only for your right to choose your actions. They are not stating that any conceivable action within your range of options is necessarily a good and beautiful thing, nor should anything you do be immune from criticism simply because it is peaceful and voluntary.
For instance, a libertarian would say that a person should have the legal right to smoke three packets of cigarettes a day. But he is not saying that a person should smoke three packets of cigarettes a day, nor that such a heavy volume of smoking is a wise and beneficial choice. True enough, there will be libertarians who, out of either naivety or a personal commitment to libertinism, do indeed reason in such a fashion, seeing nothing morally wrong with any possible choice one may make so long as it does not breach the non-aggression principle. Libertarianism itself, however, entails no such advocacy – it is the foundation upon which wider moral problems should be solved, not the final word.
Clearly, this division between legal permissibility and moral advocacy should apply also to the defence of individually defined liberties such as the freedom of speech – that is, we endorse a person’s right to speak but not necessarily the content of what he says, an endeavour captured most famously by words attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
For libertarians, the freedom of speech is a derivative of the right to self-ownership – you own your vocal chords as much as any other part of your body, and so you should be able to say what you like with them. However, all derivatives of self-ownership and private property – whether it is free speech, sound money, anti-prohibition, free trade, and so on – can, and often are, promoted separately in their own right.
There are good reasons for libertarians to engage in these more specific arguments, armed with a war chest of detailed knowledge on each and every guise of freedom. For not only is it possible for the benefits and blessings of these different freedoms to be illustrated separately – explaining the consequences of free trade is quite a different exercise from doing the same for legalising drugs, for instance – it is also likely that people will be more conducive to accepting some freedoms rather than others. For instance, they may like the idea of free trade but not lower taxes; they may be persuaded by the benefits of free speech but shy away from drug legalisation; de-funding the BBC may seem like a great idea, but there is likely to be much less enthusiasm for repeating the exercise with the NHS. Thus, by selectively arguing for individual freedoms, it is possible to achieve a partial victory that could otherwise be denied if one’s only argument is to repeat, verbatim, the non-aggression principle.
Nevertheless, there are risks to arguing in favour of individual freedoms without any connection to a more fundamental principle. One particular lacuna in the freedom of speech is that it fails to accurately resolve the problem of scarcity. Every newspaper has only so many pages, every radio show has only so much air time and every publisher can only publish so many books. Not everybody who wants to get their say is able to be accommodated in these forums all of the time. One particular conundrum often used to illustrate the difficulty of delineating the freedom of speech is whether a person has the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Some headway could be made by arguing that the freedom of speech should bind only state institutions or apply only in publicly owned spaces, but even this doesn’t resolve all problems. The M25 is a publicly owned space but I doubt many drivers in the South East would defend a “right” to pitch your lectern in the middle lane.
In order to solve these conflicts, the libertarian must resort, ultimately, to asking who owns the property used to disseminate the speech in question. Thus, we would argue that the newspaper’s owners decide whose articles gets printed in its columns; the radio station’s owners decide who will be aired on its programmes; the publisher decides which books will be printed by its presses; the theatre determines what can and cannot be said on its premises; and that the M25 should be privatised so that the exclusion of traffic obstructions becomes the new owner’s prerogative. Absent this critical factor of property, the door is left ajar for the state to find other mechanisms with which to regulate who gets to speak and when.
A further risk is that individual arguments in favour of a particular freedom can, indeed, begin to bridge the division between permissibility and promotion, advocating not only for the formal freedom of choice but for the making of particular choices. In fact, this is largely unavoidable because most arguments in favour of individual freedoms are utilitarian endorsements of the good consequences that arise from allowing freedom to flourish. So for instance, instead of arguing for the mere right to be greedy, we can end up going the whole hog by declaring that “greed is good”, imploring people to maximise their greed as much as possible because such maximisation produces a “better” outcome than a situation in which people restrain their greed.
In his classic defence of the freedom of speech, J S Mill summarised four important arguments as to why false or “bad” speech should not be silenced:
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.1
The tenor of these arguments is that we can only fully appreciate true and good ideas if we are also able to hear false and bad ideas. Only against the darkness of falsehood can the light of truth be focussed and intensified. Without delving into the philosophical problem of whether either good or evil can ever be understood independently of each other, it is not, from here, a great leap to conclude that bad speech is actually good on account of the ability it lends us to appreciate what is truly good. Thus, it is quite possible to derive, from the formal argument in favour of the freedom of speech, the more substantive value judgment that any form of speaking is a good choice to make that should be prioritised ahead of other options.
This is not necessarily a problem when it remains stated as a general principle, translating only into the broad recommendation that property owners err on the side of permissibility when deciding whether speech should be made with their property (or within associations of which they are a part). This is especially true in forums where the interchange of ideas is the whole point of the institution. So we could argue, for instance, that universities should not sack academics who express unpopular views; that conferences should not de-platform speakers purely because they will make a controversial argument; and that employers should not boot out workers who make disagreeable remarks on social media.
But there is a danger also for this kind of thinking to be converted too willingly into the defence and promotion of particular pieces of speech. Such zeal is likely to be especially precarious in the one area where libertarians qua libertarians do have to make explicit value judgments: deciding upon the best ways for the message of liberty and freedom to be disseminated as effectively as possible, and how we can best motivate people towards a world in which violence and statism have been reduced to a minimum. Instead of making wise and judicious assessments as to which speeches and expressions best serve the freedom of speech, libertarians (and those on the right more generally) seem to be moving in the direction of heaping blanket praise on anyone who happens to have spoken in a way that antagonises the left or its protected groups. This is often supplemented by the mere assumption that the speakers deserve to be lauded as champions of the freedom of speech.
These kinds of complication have arisen recently following violent, Islamist responses to satirical and comedic depictions of the Prophet Muhammad published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. This weekly periodical has had an unrelenting history of sailing close to the wind with its satirical material, not too dissimilar to the persistent controversy attracted by Private Eye during its heyday. However, while the latter has merely been irritated by endless lawsuits, some of the blowback against Charlie Hebdo has been horrendous. In January 2015, Islamist gunmen stormed the magazine’s headquarters in Paris, shooting dead a number of editors, columnists and illustrators while injuring many more. Fast forward to October of this year, and an eighteen year old Russian Muslim of Chechen descent beheaded a French school teacher who had used one or more of the Muhammad cartoons with his students during a lesson on the freedom of expression.
One response to all of this – the dominant response amongst the right – is to view the cartoons as a bold and fearless pushback against intolerant Islamists and an equally (if not more) intolerant left that has weaponised anti-Islamophobia in its relentless assault upon Western civilisation. The horrific attacks upon Charlie Hebdo and the school teacher just go show the extent of the violent extremism and rank fanaticism that we are up against. Moreover, such violent reactions to those who have uttered statements deemed offensive show the ultimate logic of cancel culture – it is a small step from exterminating a person’s career and reputation to exterminating the person himself.
But another way at looking at is to recognise the unfortunate likelihood of the state ending up as the main beneficiary of the fallout. In the first place, the cartoons were not explicitly protesting against any French law or attempted state suppression2, nor were they a defiant rebuff to the “cancellation” of, say, a free-speaking academic from a state funded institution. Rather, when you strip the matter to its bones, a set of illustrations made by one private party had the effect of offending other private parties. The state takes it upon itself to regulate conflicts between private individuals, and so it is the state that will claim more power to prevent a recurrence of these events – a power which, as will become clear, will not necessarily be confined to curbing the violent party. Looking more widely, however, any incidental benefit that the cartoons may have for the cause of the freedom of speech and the values of Western civilisation more generally may well be negative in the long run because the wider context in which these cartoons were published has been poisoned by the very people who wish to destroy Western values.
This wider context is that, whatever one’s opinion of Islam, the fact remains that that a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim and, thus, some way of co-existing with the Islamic world must be found, if only at a distance. This is an obligation that cuts both ways, and yet Western states have not exactly been doing their level best to foster this co-existence, having, instead, bombed and invaded Muslim majority countries with impunity for decades. The blowback from these foreign policy disasters has arrived in the form of radical Islamic terrorism, which has led directly to the engorgement of the surveillance/security state at the expense of long cherished rights and freedoms. It has also inflamed an anti-Islamic sentiment within Western populations that would otherwise not exist to the same degree. If, from within this poisoned crucible, material that mocks, lampoons and ridicules the founder and most important prophet of Islam is produced, then what will be the likely result?
First, radical Islamists will interpret it as yet a further example of the unrestrained, ideological imperialism of the secular West. Terrorist attacks are therefore likely to increase. If terrorist attacks increase then it is another excuse for the state to pass even more authoritarian legislation in the name of fighting a problem for which the state is ultimately responsible. Indeed, proposals for more intrusive surveillance laws were made directly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices. Just ten months later, a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that left more than 150 dead were followed by a two-year state of emergency, which banned public demonstrations and permitted warrantless police searches and house arrest without trial.
Second, none of the Guardian-reading cultural leftist types is likely to have a Road-to-Damascus conversion from browsing the pages of Charlie Hebdo; rather, they are more likely to regard these cartoons as further evidence that the West is racist, bigoted and Islamophobic. Indeed, the mainstream press and the Twittering classes already seem to have forgotten the story of this month’s brutal beheading; in contrast, had someone from the so-called “far right” murdered a Muslim, you could guarantee that it would be “trending” for several weeks. All in all, we are likely to see more hate speech laws and a harder crackdown on anything that has a whiff of patriotism, nationalism, traditionalism, or “far-right”. This is made all the more likely by the fact that the terrorist atrocities committed in response to the cartoons further inflame the anti-Islamic fervour of the population.
In other words, it could be argued that those who praise the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a defence of Western values are, at best, naïve, or, at worst, little more than useful idiots spending all of their energies attacking the pawns while oblivious to the king consolidating his position. Thus, they play straight into the hands of the real enemy, the real threat to Western civilisation which comes not from the outside but is self-manufactured from within its very own walls by cultural leftists. It is Western leaders who are provoking Islamic terrorism as a result of a disastrously interventionist foreign policy; it is Western politicians who are using this blowback as an excuse to destroy our ancient rights and freedoms; it is Western leftists who are demanding the borders be thrown open so as to deliberately import to western shores cultural, ideological and religious adherences that are antithetical to Western values; and it is those self same Western leftists who are deliberately stoking antagonism and resentment so as to paint the picture of an oppressive, Western patriarchy that is suffocating selectively defined minorities. One cannot make a judgment of any particular incident and its impact upon our freedoms without appreciating these circumstances.
Free Speech and Offensiveness
It is also doubtful whether the publication of offensive material in general has anything more than a very precise and limited scope in promoting the freedom of speech. There will, of course, be occasions on which offensiveness is the most effective way in which to make a point (perhaps as part of a comedy routine), and also – in the vein of J S Mill – the risk of offending a person incidentally is a small price to pay for the greater truths that can be revealed by the free dissemination of ideas. It is also true that “offence” is one of the pretexts presently being used to justify curtailing the freedom of speech, and, empirically, disagreeable behaviour as a whole is always going to be the most vulnerable entry point for state suppression. However, while this reality means that the offensive may have to be defended more often than the inoffensive, it doesn’t follow from all of this that offensiveness is the best light in which we can demonstrate the value of the freedom of speech. Indeed, it could even be counterproductive if either used or championed unwisely.
This can be illustrated by looking at how we would want to promote other freedoms and values. Arguments for the legalisation of drugs may be bolstered by, say, pointing out the medicinal benefits of cannabis; in contrast, we are unlikely to achieve much simply by being high on heroin or by endorsing the state of being so. Similarly, when promoting free enterprise and entrepreneurship, we will probably point to businessmen such as Henry Ford or Freddie Laker who made, respectively, automobiles and air travel affordable for the masses; we are less likely to point to asset strippers, ticket touters, slumlords and pimps. If we want to extol the accomplishments of art, we hold up a Monet or a Rembrandt rather than Tracy Emin’s bed; with music, we would suggest listening to Mozart before Stockhausen; in order to praise the accomplishments of film making we would want to screen a Hitchcock classic rather than a pornographic video.
All of these things – heroin, ticket touting, pimping, slum lords, Tracy Emin, Stockhausen, and pornography – should be perfectly legal and, as Walter Block has famously argued3, possess value and purpose for willing consumers. But we can see that, in most circumstances, they are likely to hurt, rather than help, any cause to promote the freedoms that permit them to be enjoyed. So too, therefore, should we want to promote the freedom of speech with its most positive results: the debating of ideas, the discovery of truth, and the production of creative works of art, literature and music, all of which have suffered during regimes of heightened censorship. Offensiveness is clearly low down on the list compared to these other values.
Violence, Suppression and Surviving “Cancellation”
We cannot leave this matter without commenting more specifically on the violent responses to the publication and use of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, as well as the risk of violent suppression of our efforts to champion our freedoms.
To reiterate, the fact that Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish whatever it wants cannot be disputed, nor can any violent reaction to whatever it decides to publish ever be justified. The attack on the offices in 2015 and the beheading earlier this month are undeniably criminal acts for which there should be no legal or moral defence whatsoever.
However, deciding what our rights are (or should be) does not mean that we can be blind to the question of how best to ensure our long term survival when defending them. Indeed, we can presume that neither the editors of Charlie Hebdo nor the schoolteacher who used their material in the classroom had the intention of being martyred. So when it comes to the more general question of choosing the best ways in which promote the freedom of speech (and other freedoms and values more generally), the unspeakable violence in this case may serve as an additional reminder that what our rights are is a separate question from how best to deal with those who would infringe them. In its zeal to proclaim Je suis Charlie, this is a nuance that the right seems to have forgotten, even though it is usually able to grasp it in similar, but simpler situations.
For instance, a man has absolutely no right to rape a woman. Any man who does so is a criminal. A woman has every right to dress however she pleases, and no man can claim a defence for raping a woman simply because she wore a sexually suggestive outfit. Feminists and other leftists usually regard that as the end of the matter. However, when it comes to practical steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of being raped, the right will normally point out that it is probably not a good idea for a woman to dress in a sexually provocative manner. Similarly, no one has the right to burgle your house. But again, when it comes to the matter of reducing the chances of being burgled, we lock our doors and windows; anyone who was burgled after failing to secure their property in this manner will probably receive little sympathy.4 Thus, it is one thing to argue that other people should not act so as to put you in danger; but if the existence of a particular danger has to be taken as a given it makes little sense to do things that will maximise your exposure simply because it is your right to do so. If you chance upon a rattlesnake then it is best to walk around it rather than tread on its tail. Such basic, practical considerations must take their place in the wider question of how to tackle problems such as rapists, burglars and rattlesnakes.
The purpose of this is not to suggest that the editors of Charlie Hebdo recklessly put their staff in the way of the known danger of radical Islamists. The point is that once you know the nature of your enemy then you must use this knowledge in order to decide how best to defeat him while ensuring that you – and everything you have worked for – emerge relatively unscathed. In the fight for liberty and the defence of Western civilisation, we know that our foe is normally going to be the state; we know that it is a necessarily violent and dangerous entity that is able to wipe away anything in its path with a stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen; we know that our numbers are small while theirs are many; we know that our resources are limited and theirs are plentiful; we know that our major channels of communication are policed by leftists hostile to our cause. Whether we like or not, the deck is stacked against our favour, and so not only is the likely success of anything that we can do is unfairly constrained but the retaliation could end up costing us more than we gain. Thus, in every situation with which we are faced, we have to weigh our chances very carefully. In short we need to choose our battles.
Sometimes we may be lucky enough to commit flamboyant acts of civil disobedience in the face of an unconscionable state edict, rallying the public to our side in spite of the risk of state persecution. Indeed, opportunities in this regard may soon become plentiful if opposition to COVID restrictions continues to grow. But on other occasions we may just have to quietly withdraw and wait to fight on another day. Sometimes it is worth provoking a reaction from the left if the egg is more likely to end up on their faces rather than on ours; other times the backlash could hurt us more than it will hurt them. Sometimes it is worth refuting a leftist diatribe; others it’s better to roll our eyes and forget it. Unfortunately, giving thought to these kinds of consideration is not something that those who push against the leftist onslaught have always been very good at doing.
In last year’s European Parliament elections, UKIP was routed for its increasing anti-immigration and anti-Islam drive. In contrast, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party understood that the priority for voters in this battle was the clear and simple objective of leaving the EU, and that anything else simply muddied the waters.5
One of UKIP’s electoral candidates at that time, YouTuber Carl Benjamin, was mired in controversy over joking comments he had made concerning whether he would or would not rape Labour MP Jess Phillips. Whether the latter “deserved” the comments in retribution for things she had said herself, or whether, in Benjamin’s words, it is more empowering to women “to not be controlled by jokes”, is all beside the point. Was it really worth having his core electoral message drowned out by a slanging match with an unimportant MP?6
Social commentator Katie Hopkins was banned from Twitter earlier this year, the coup de grâce following an earlier suspension for having referred to rapper Stormzy as a “cockwomble”. Granted, Hopkins’ popularity owes itself precisely to the fact that she is deliberately provocative. But was it really worth being cut off from more than a million followers just to hurl an insult at yet another leftwing celebrity?
It’s true, of course, that polemicists and extremists can serve a purpose in the wider scheme of things. By deflecting all of the leftist ire onto themselves at the flank, one’s own position can appear more moderate and acceptable – at least, that is, if they don’t tar everyone an inch to the right of Boris Johnson with the same brush.
However, it is difficult to suggest that such a purpose was the only value of the historian David Starkey. Again no stranger to controversy, Starkey lost the lion’s share of his academic honours and publication contracts for using the phrase “so many damn blacks” while disputing the suggestion that slavery is equivalent to genocide. Starkey later apologised for his clumsy phrasing, and there is little doubt that it was simply a mistaken way of making an otherwise valid point. But at the same time it is hard to deny that it was an avoidable and unnecessary own goal which has effectively ended this eminent historian’s career while handing to the leftists, on a silver platter, the very evidence of white Western bigotry and racism that they have furiously ferreted for. In fact, in this instance, it was the establishment that seemed to realise that this was not a battle worth fighting; a police investigation into both Starkey and his interviewer for “stirring up racial hatred” was dropped earlier this month.
Nothing written in this essay should be taken as a final conclusion concerning the Charlie Hebdo affair, or of the actions of Carl Benjamin, Katie Hopkins and David Starkey. Readers may well assess these incidents differently from how they are weighed above. It would also be a grave mistake to assume that what is needed is to sacrifice principles in order achieve “realistic” goals.7
Rather, the core lesson is that defining and justifying the freedoms we cherish is a separate exercise from determining how, where and when those freedoms are best promoted. The latter is an extremely difficult exercise, requiring a judicious interpretation of the context and the ideas, conditions and aspirations that motivate the relevant parties. It should not be assumed that fighting for the freedom of speech is as easy as congratulating someone merely because they have spoken. Especially important is the fact that we cannot afford Pyrrhic victories or carelessly wasting our resources on inconsequential battles, risking not only a localised failure but also the preservation of everything we have accomplished thus far. There is no point in spending our best waking hours writing down our ideas and visions for a better world if, out of avoidable carelessness, we hand over the matches with which to burn the books. Instead, we must save our limited arsenal for the most important battles where there is a good chances of delivering permanent and decisive blows to the state and its supporters with minimal risk of retaliation. In short, we must wait for when we can strike at the king, and for when we can be equally sure that we do not miss.
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1John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Fourth Edition, Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer (1869), 95.
2Some of the cartoons had resulted in the 2007 prosecution of Charlie Hebdo’s editor for breaching French hate speech laws, but he was subsequently acquitted.
3Walter Block, Defending the Undefendable, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2018)
4Indeed, there can even be legal duties for property owners or caretakers to ensure a reasonable degree of security against the foreseeable crimes of third parties targeted at tenants or visitors.
5Indeed, Farage is sometimes criticised by his own side for being “controlled opposition” – for residing at the edge of, but within, the establishment circle, and for inconsistently highlighting particular issues as and when it seems to suit him. Such remarks were particularly common when he denounced UKIP’s recruitment of English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson as an adviser. In Farage’s defence, however, it could be argued that his political acumen at identifying the best time to press a certain issue is simply better than that of his detractors.
6One also has to wonder whether most voters would share Benjamin’s sense of humour on a matter which does not lend itself easily to comedy. Equally problematic is whether such remarks, regardless of the quality of so-called “public servants”, are befitting for an individual who aspires to public office. In the long run, one is unlikely to lose the war by retaining the moral high ground.
7I will be explaining the relationship between principle and pragmatism more fully in a forthcoming essay.