Sticks and stones

The Charlie Hebdo massacre this week left the world in shock. What sort of barbarous evil would drive someone to kill – over a cartoon? Apparently emotions – emotions fed by the infallibility of one’s beliefs. Infallibility is immune from reason, logic, and rational discourse. Infallibility is a necessary, although not sufficient, prerequisite for evil done in the name of the “greater good.” The nature of the belief is irrelevant – all that matters is the perpetrator thought themselves infallible. How then does one fight infallibility? It is a belief not in ideas, but rather the egoism of one’s perfection. Honestly, I do not know. To be sure, one can harmlessly think they have it all figured out and the rest of us are just fools. But, how badly would such a person feel that if for the greater good of advancing their obviously correct beliefs, it became necessary to initiate aggression toward another? Not very, it would seem. How many of us are guilty of not objecting to the passage or existence of some law that we happen to agree with but which restricts the rights of others who are harming no one? How many of us support wars because of the unstated patriotic truth that one’s own country can do no wrong? If the state is defined as social aggression, then any given citizen is a passive-aggressor.

The beliefs of these particular Muslims led them to interpret the Koran in such a way that it was their infallible belief that they had every right to take such actions. Obviously (being infallible myself!) they were wrong in that belief. But, as crazy as it might seem, their belief is not far removed from the laws in France (and many other “Western” countries) as well as the opinion of a good number of Americans. Abstractly, the belief is that one has the right to not be offended by other people, and, if such an offense occurs, one has the right to cease further offenses, by any means necessary. Well it just so happens that France has a law against insulting people based on their religion. Violation of this law includes severe fines and jail time. It also happens that Charlie Hebdo was sued under this law in 2006 by the Paris Grand Mosque and the Union of French Islamic Organizations. Charlie Hebdo won that suit, however the precedent was set. It is ok for society to say “we think that is offensive, you must stop or else.” Had they lost the case and resisted being dragged off to a jail cell, the outcome would have been similar; a gun standoff between agents of the state (police) and Charlie Hebdo. The only difference this week is that the two gunmen didn’t get the memo: violence is only ok if a majority of people approves – morality is a function of a popular opinion don’t you know.

In other words, if Hebdo had lost their case, and the two gunmen had hypothetically been part of the French police force sent in to drag them off to prison and had killed them in the process, then instead of lamenting the deaths people would be excusing it with platitudes like “well that’s what happens when you break the law.” Just to be clear – I am in no way excusing the actions of the gunmen. I am pointing out that the actions of a state, any state, that would compel its citizens to stand trial for the crime of insulting someone’s sensibilities are equally abhorrent.

As Americans you would think we would be immune to this sort of idiocy – home of the 1st amendment as we are. Apparently not. Rapper ‘Tiny Doo’ is facing life in prison in California over his lyrics. And a recent YouGov poll found not insignificant support for “hate speech” laws (36% of all respondents and 51% of self-identified Democrats!). Yes, hate speech is vile, ugly and worthy of being ignored. However, mere words, mere ideas, should not be punishable by fines or jail, lest we fall into an Orwell novel where “thoughtcrime” is equivalent to action-crime. Ron Paul summarizes this most succinctly; “We don’t have the First Amendment so we can talk about the weather. We have the First Amendment so we can say very controversial things.” We should not be so afraid of bad ideas that we drive them into the shadows; rather, we should endeavor to annihilate them under the scorching light of our own ideas, in the marketplace of ideas that is a free society.