Racist Speech and Heroic Speech are Not Mutually Exclusive

“You may say anything you like in this country, as long as it isn’t racist.” So said the sign at the border.

In a country with such a law, free speech has an obvious serious curtailment. But perhaps everyone in the country is perfectly fine with it. None of them is a racist, so why should they care? Not a single thing that anyone would like to say is being restricted. Why, they reason, would anyone think this law was unfair unless they were a racist? Racist speech is valueless.

I don’t want to debate their reasoning right now; there are all kinds of good replies about creeping government power and the impossibility of adjudication. Instead, I want to assume that you and I already share an American conception of free speech: that except  for the tiniest possible category of actual violence-inducing speech, all speech should in principle remain permissible. A blanket prohibition on racist speech is an intolerable restriction on the liberty of human communication.

Now, if we do believe in this conception of free speech, what ought we to do? We’re not racists, obviously. But I honestly think in a society that restricts a certain category of speech, it can be a heroic act to disobediently utter that speech. Racism is abominable. But somebody who said racist things, not because they believed them but because they wanted to vigorously fight for the ability to say them, could be doing the right thing. It is laudable to force the society into a position where it had to punish by force that which had previously been punished only through informal pressure.* It is civil disobedience in the pursuit of a just cause.

I bring this up in reference to the tiny scandal over a bunch of writers being upset that Charlie Hebdo is being given a free speech award. Yes, Charlie Hebdo should be able to freely publish their offensive cartoons, they say, but there’s no need to recognize uttering offensive speech as something noble.

I disagree, though. If we live in a society where there is a threat of violence against anyone who says an offensive thing, and because I believe this is wrong I intentionally say an offensive thing in order to resist the threat, that is a heroic act. An important distinction here seems to be whether the speaker really means the content. If I’m a Nazi, and I issue racist statements because I am a Nazi, and am punished, I have been mistreated. Yet I’m not an especially honorable person, since my motivation for the act was being a Nazi; I am trying to make the society worse, not better.** But say I’m completely apolitical. I am motivated not by internal racism, but by a belief that somebody ought to try to push the limits of what can be said, so that the ability can be preserved for all. Honoring me would not be honoring “a racist” but somebody who said hideously offensive things because they thought those things needed to be said, not for their content but for the sake of extending the ability to speak.

I tend to think Charlie Hebdo is heroic because I see them as these sort of speakers. Their cartoons seem crude and pointless, not really driven by any ideology other than to say the most offensive possible thing. I don’t think they are motivated by racism, I think they are motivated by the desire to piss people off, using racism if it will accomplish this objective. They do this, as far as I can tell, because they think somebody ought to say everything that can be said, to encourage a robust freedom of expression.

Realize that this acknowledges Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as racist. The debates I have seen on this generally split this way: supporters say Charlie Hebdo did not publish racist content but “satirical” or “provocative” content, and satire in the face of threats is heroic. Opponents say Charlie Hebdo published racist content, and saying racist things isn’t “heroic” even if it should be protected. I take a third position: Charlie Hebdo published racist content, and publishing racist content is a heroic act if one is doing it in order to insist upon their freedom to do so. If we live in a society in which it is made clear that one word is forbidden, and speaking it will be punished by death, the person who speaks that word in defiance is a hero, regardless of whether the word in question is “canteloupe” or the n-word. If I publish a magazine of racist pornographic scrawlings, the content of which I couldn’t really care less about, because I think it serves an important political function to have someone constantly pushing the boundaries of freedom (and risking their lives in doing so), that is an admirable thing.

Perhaps we think the writers of Charlie Hebdo are motivated by racism (which is not admirable), rather than a desire to say offensive things in order to prove it can be done (which is admirable). But I think the evidence leans the other way; in fact, most of the magazine’s detractors acknowledge that they basically just tried to be “equal opportunity” offenders that said incredibly disgusting things about whoever. The point the detractors make is that “equal opportunity” offense is a myth, because kicking the weak is very different from kicking the strong. You may insist that you offend everyone the same, but if I draw an offensive caricature of a politician versus an offensive caricature of a mentally disabled person, my level of caricature maybe the same but one of those drawings is far more reprehensible.

I agree with all of that analysis, but it doesn’t contradict my conclusion. It is only a reply to those who are defending Charlie Hebdo’s speech as not being racist. It is not a reply to those, like me, who concede completely that the speech is racist. There are circumstances, however, in which saying something racist and saying something heroic can be the same thing. If it is clear that death squads will come after you if you say racist things, then my God, the champion of individual liberty should start screaming racist things from the rooftops.

Finally, one more point: every single debate about whether someone should get some award or not is stupid. I hate awards.

* A distinction can be drawn between violent punishment by the government and violent punishment by private religious militias (like what Charlie Hebdo received). But I don’t think this difference matters, since from the perspective of the individual who wishes to have an ability to speak, the experience of having a society come after you through public or private means is pretty much the same, and free speech that is guaranteed by law but prohibited by organized private violence is not really free speech.

**I know the Nazi thinks he’s trying to make the society better. But he’s not; Nazis make society worse. This is inarguable.