Blasphemy Clinic

Remember Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic”? Iconic, I would say, if the status of icons weren’t so contested these days.

Among the many thoughtful and heartfelt responses in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I especially appreciated Ross Douthat’s NY Times posting, “The Blasphemy We Need.” Douthat gives a clinic on blasphemy: true as it may be that “in a cultural and political vacuum” the “world would not suffer from the absence” of some of Charlie Hebdo’s more provocative and even jackass-like satirical attacks, we are most certainly not in such a vacuum after the killings of their staff members, a French policeman named Ahmed on the street outside their offices, and several shoppers at a nearby kosher supermarket. And now Douthat’s (third) premise about “blasphemy in a free society” is very apropos: “the legitimacy and wisdom of criticism directed at offensive speech is generally inversely proportional to the level of mortal danger that the blasphemer brings upon himself.”

This is precisely the time, as Douthat rightly says, for even–and especially–those of us unsettled or revolted by Charlie Hebdo to “set aside [our] squeamishness and rise to [their] defense.” This is true even–and especially–if a member of Charlie Hebdo’s surviving staff says “we vomit on our newfound friends.”

The task of promoting civil peace and tolerant pluralism in a multicultural, multireligious city or nation or world requires “defending to the death” per Voltaire the right of everyone to free speech, even–and especially–when that speech is distasteful. Otherwise we have the “assassin’s veto” on free expression. And yet civil peace depends, just as much, on fulfilling our duty of hospitality and comprehension, as Paul Ricoeur phrased it two decades ago in a discussion of French Christians’ duties toward Muslim immigrants to France for whom “disintegration” is experienced as a primary threat (Critique and Conviction, p. 133). ¬†Defending the rights of free expression is not in and of itself our heart’s resting place, whether or not we are Christians, Hindus, non-religious, Jews, agnostics, Muslims, or otherwise “other.”

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