Speech Codes, PC Politics: When America is NOT “Charlie”

I am Charlie Hebdo, standing with Free Expression and against the violence that would destroy it. Perhaps you are Charlie Hebdo, too.

But is America Charlie Hebdo? In many crucial ways, no, as America becomes more offended and less tolerant of free expression every day.

Last week, I called CNN’s management cowards for refusing to show Charlie’s first post-massacre cover (it was neither obscene nor libelous). They self-righteously claimed their decision reflected respect and tolerance. Nonsense. Self-censorship to protect yourself from violence may be smart, but it expresses neither respect for others nor tolerance of diversity.

Pathetically, The New York Times announced a similar policy, refusing to show the image that is one of the world’s central stories of 2015—but refusing to admit their reason was fear of violence. CNN and The Times boldly support the publication of the cartoons abroad, but not here. That Atlantic Ocean inspires a lot of courage for others’ risk-taking.

So how would Charlie Hebdo and its covers fare if published here? Not just reported on as news, but actually published and distributed. Sadly, that’s where America’s ambivalence about free expression would become visible. I’m not talking about “We shouldn’t insult Muslims, they’re people too;” no, it’s much worse. America has descended into a parody of a Waldorf kindergarten in which no one’s feelings must ever be hurt.

If those cartoons were published and distributed here,

* Their distribution (whether for money or for free) would be prevented on most college campuses (as speech hurtful to others);
* Students on many campuses would successfully insist they not be discussed in class;
* Dozens of cities would pass a resolution condemning them and attempting to limit their availability;
* Many high schools would suspend any student caught with one;
* Many adults would complain that they constitute a hostile work environment and demand they be banned from the workplace—and employers would comply, fearing lawsuits.

And when these events were covered on the 10 o’clock news, the troublesome magazine cover would not be pictured, for fear of offending a few viewers and a local anti-hate-speech group.

If you doubt this, consider the following recent events.

* The annual production of the Vagina Monologues was recently discontinued at Mt. Holyoke College—a prestigious all-women’s school with a proud liberal tradition—because it might make transgender students who don’t have vaginas feel left out.

* Model and former Miss Universe Australia Erin McNaught has been trashed in the blogosphere for posting attractive bikini photos of herself four weeks after giving birth. Apparently many non-model new mothers women feel implicitly criticized by McNaught’s proud display.

* College students are increasingly demanding “trigger warnings” on class lectures and reading assignments. This feminist-based concept claims that students need assistance in protecting themselves from material they will find upsetting and hard to engage.

* More and more events are being described as “microaggression” and “microassault,” the feminist concept which claims that everyday interactions that make someone feel lonely, ignored, unattractive, judged, or inferior should be seen as part of a broad political dynamic—and eliminated.

* Worst of all, virtually all college campuses have now institutionalized speech codes, which dictate that a student must not say or do anything that another student might find emotionally hurtful. Sitting around campus reading—not proselytizing, just reading—Playboy, or Mein Kampf, or a history of the KKK (even one that denounces the KKK) is enough to invite disciplinary action or even expulsion. Yes, really. (See www.TheFire.org for examples.)

So a publication like Charlie Hebdo which routinely satirizes and criticizes Muslim violence, Jewish avarice, religion in general, the nationalist right, and politicians in general would not find a welcome home here in the U.S.. We can cheer the overseas courage that publishes and protects it, but as a people we are simply not strong enough to tolerate these emotional challenges in our own country.

But isn’t satire a right?

“Not just a right,” says The Humanist editor Maggie Ardiente, “It’s an obligation.” And the more it’s condemned, the more it’s needed.

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