Freedom of thought is always freedom for the thought we hate

Discussion of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo would, I think, benefit from a focus on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1929 dictum that freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate.”  It’s only when a good many people hate a thought that private violence or state-sanctioned coercion against the people who insist on expressing it is likely to attract support.

Charlie Hebdo has long specialized in airing thoughts that range from the unpleasant to the disgusting.  Not only Muslims, but decent people of any sort are unlikely to read much of any issue of the paper without a sense of revulsion.  To say, as so many have done in these last 48 hours, Je suis Charlie or Nous sommes tous Charlie is rather a bold act, or would be if 99% of those saying it had ever seen an issue of Charlie Hebdo.

I affirm that freedom for the thought we hate, that is to say, the assurance that one will not suffer violence because one has expressed ideas that someone finds obnoxious, is indispensable to a free society, and that without it no other freedom can long survive.  In that sense I would be tempted to join in saying Je suis Charlie. What, then, do we say about Anwar al-Awlaki?  In 2011, President Barack Obama openly ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and justified that killing on the grounds that Mr al-Awlaki had spoken in favor of terrorist attacks against Americans and that terrorists had sought him and his words out for comfort.  No evidence was presented that Mr al-Awlaki had been involved in any terrorist act, and there was no judicial process regarding him whatever.  Mr Obama simply ordered a drone strike, and the killing was done.  The following year, Mr Obama was reelected president.  The most prominent candidate to call for a criminal investigation of the killing of Mr al-Awlaki, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, received 0.03% of the votes cast in that election; Mr Obama’s leading opponent, former Massachusetts governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, enthusiastically supported the president’s deadliest policies, and promised to expand them.

As an American, I would ask my countrymen: If we as a people sincerely believed in protecting the freedom of the thought we hate, where would Mr Obama be today?  How can we say Je suis Charlie if we are not prepared at the same time to say “I am Anwar al-Awlaki”?

If we cannot take that step, then the freedom we actually support is not the freedom of the thought we hate, but the freedom of people of whom we approve to express their contempt for people of whom we disapprove. That is an odd sort of freedom.  Political freedoms as traditionally conceived require the established authorities to renounce parts of their power, to subject themselves to various sorts of accountability, and to recognize that the rights of minorities, even minorities of one, sometimes take precedence over the will of the majority.  The freedom of the approved to scorn the unapproved does none of those things. On the contrary, it gives more power to those authorities who take part in deciding who will and who will not be invited to join the charmed circle of the approved; it prevents the authorities being held to account for anything they might do to those outside that circle; and it elevates the majority to an unchallengable, virtually divine status.  Nothing could be more totally alien to the irreverent spirit that Charlie’s newfound champions claim to cherish than this kind of pseudo-freedom.

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2 Comments

  1. In a comment on an old post of Noah Millman’s, I connect the major point of this item with a rabbinical analysis of the case of King Saul: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/millman/for-what-sin-was-saul-punished/comment-page-1/#comment-7174539

  2. That major point being that there are situations in which nothing short of total commitment is satisfactory, or even acceptable.

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