It may be narcissistic, and in poor taste, to talk so soon about how the Charlie Hebdo massacre relates to the rest of us. But of course American pundits are doing it anyway, and I’ll join the fray long enough to note four things.
First, although freedom of speech and of the press have been in the U.S. Constitution since the beginning, and were adopted in European countries at various times, religious blasphemy has not always been protected speech in the West. It is only in recent decades, as our societal elites have become more skeptical of religion, that courts have come to protect speech that ridicules religion.
Second, it took many people in the West a long time to make peace with the right to lampoon religion. Here is a fascinating video clip from 1979 of some of my favorite Englishmen – Malcolm Muggeridge, John Cleese, and Michael Palin – arguing vehemently over the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, whose final scene is taken by many (me included) to be ridiculing Christ’s crucifixion.
Third, one can agree with Muggeridge, who was a fearless journalist, and the Bishop of Southwark in the video that the Monty Python film is blasphemous and ought not to have had the crucifixion scene, and at the same time maintain that Monty Python must be allowed to make and distribute that film without fear of state prosecution or private violence. The same goes for Charlie Hebdo and the lampooning of Muhammad. We have arrived at a point in Western culture where almost nothing is sacred, and maintaining our constitutional freedoms requires that we not carve out exceptions for blasphemy. We must not flinch.
Fourth, as David Brooks notes in a brilliant column today, this goes for campus speech codes as well. As we have de-sacralized religion, we have sacralized the tender feelings of students, and censorship is rife on campuses. The horrific events in France and our reactions to them expose our silliness and incoherence.