So this one is more of a personal one, for which I apologise. But I keep half making this point and it really out to be explained more fully I think.
To start, the actions of the individuals who murdered journalists at Charlie Hebdo are unequivocally abhorrent, inexcusable and clearly completely and utterly counterproductive to whatever cause they claim to serve.
But, with that important framing, I want to talk about the reaction. Or more specifically, the "I am not Charlie" op-ed articles that are being written up. For brevity purposes only I'll focus on the contributions of FT's Robert Shrimsley and the New York Times' Ross Douthat.
"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. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed."
I think he's wrong here in at least one important aspect. Freedom of speech implies a can, not an ought. That is, we have the right to offend whomsoever we see fit — but not the obligation to do so (wouldn't the obligation itself be, in part, a violation of that freedom rather than a demonstration of it?).
I accept that merely asserting that you can publish something, but never actually doing so may not be much of a defence against the claim that not doing so empowers those who would seek, with violence, to prevent it. This is certainly the impression I get from Shrimsley's piece:
"Many, if not most, journalists would self-censor; they would draw back from publishing images that they know would seriously endanger themselves or their organisation — and after this week’s events one can hardly blame them. Companies have a duty of care to their staff and people have a duty of care to themselves and their families.
There is also a reasonable desire not to give unnecessary offence; but it would be dishonest for most writers and cartoonists to claim they would as willingly mock the Prophet Mohammed as they would Jesus. I may deplore the fact that media outlets are scared to run an offensive cartoon of the Prophet but would I really want one in any article I wrote? For all our brave talk about how freedom will win, about how you cannot silence satire, satire is being silenced."
Where we self-censor out of fear of violent reprisal or out of a desire not to provoke I think we are indeed worth of blame. The journalists at Charlie Hebdo were brave — exceptionally so. Of that there is no doubt.
But we cannot rewrite history in our lionisation of these brave few. It seems eminently possible that the decision not to publish the cartoons of Mohammad by most mainstream publications was not simply based on fear or a "desire not to give unnecessary offence", but the feeling that doing so would compound the impression being given to a minority community within society that they were being targeted, singled out for ridicule.
And that too was their right.
That absolutely shouldn't be used as a pretext to quash all attempts to publish any material that could be deemed offensive, of course. We must fight with Charlie Hebdo-like ferocity to preserve that right. But it has to work both ways. Yes, we must confront extremists who would strip us of those liberties, but that battle is not always or only fought through mutual provocation.
It does not seem likely, in my view, that it was a decision taken out of fear that publication would lead to radicalisation or reprisal. Surely, a more likely case is that it was taken for the editorial reason — whether misguided or not — that their publication served no purpose but to enrage, offend, or otherwise isolate a part of their audience. I can't know for sure. Maybe I'm wrong.
In any case, the only reason that I would have willingly published these pictures myself is if people vented whatever emotion it engendered violently in an attempt suppress our right to do so. To take away the 'can'.
They did. So I did.