This morning David Brooks reminds us that, for all of our expressions of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo we are often intolerant of speech that offends our own sensibilities.
In his words:
Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.
Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.
Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.
In Time Magazine Charlotte Alter elaborates:
Clearly a slaughter of 12 innocent people is countless orders of magnitude more devastating than Internet umbrage. But the motive comes from the same place: the notion that people should be “punished” for making insensitive comments or jokes, that they should pay for their words with their reputations or their jobs. In other words: You said something that offends me, so I will destroy you.
That destruction can take many forms. It could be leaking your emails and destroying your computer systems, as happened to Sony. It could be getting someone fired. It could be destroying someone’s reputation through relentless public Twitter flogging. But we forget that Internet outrage can have real-life victims (and I admit, as a writer, I’ve occasionally forgotten that.) We give ourselves license to indulge in these perverse impulses out of a sense of righteousness — Down with sexism! Conquer racism! But destroying lives over objectionable language is just a different form of extremism.
The notion that somebody deserves to have their life and career ruined for tweeting an offensive comment or bad joke is an out-of-proportion response, driven by righteous indignation. The answer to a tasteless comment or cartoon is discourse, not destruction, but too often, we sanction professional immolation as a fitting consequence of objectionable speech. It’s a snowball effect, because nobody wants to defend sometime who is being accused of bigotry, lest they be labeled a bigot themselves. There’s even a whole Tumblr devoted to policing social media and reporting racist comments to employers, called “Racists Getting Fired.” And as anyone who’s ever been the object of online vitriol knows, public finger-pointing is usually enough to make you re-think your assumptions and prejudices. You don’t have to lose your job over it.
If all of us standing up for Charlie Hedbo are truly committed to the freedom of speech–and we all should be– we need to stop demanding professional punishment whenever somebody says something idiotically sexist, racist, or classist. Embarrassing comments, in most cases, should not cost people their jobs or livelihoods. We should disagree with people, but not aim to destroy their lives.
Both Brooks and Alter are correct. The much-vaunted marketplace of ideas has in some cases degenerated to the point that anyone who offers a politically incorrect opinion is targeted for destruction.