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Disorganized thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

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These are my admittedly disorganized thoughts on the recent brutal attack in France. They are initial thoughts, not necessarily fully formed, but ones I thought worth tossing into the fray.

1. The terrorist attack on the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was not just an attack on a particular business or publication. It was an assault on the notions of free expression and free thought.

2. Religious extremism, in general, is a threat to liberty, because it is based on certainty and brooks no disagreement. This goes for Islam, to be sure, but also covers many other religious denominations.

3. This attack may have been perpetrated by Islamic extremists -- which has caused some to blame all of Islam. But it is logically fallacious to then equate the work and thought of extremists with the thinking of the larger Islamic community. We do not (or should not), for instance, assume that anti-abortion terrorists (that is what they are) who kill doctors in the United States are representative of the entire anti-abortion movement or of conservative Christianity as a whole. We need to stop assuming that the work of a groups most extreme or desperate members represents the beliefs of the larger group. (Read the second half of this post -- Muslim response to this and an earlier bombing.)

4. I support -- and we all should support -- any publication that chooses to reprint the cartoons as a show of solidarity. I would encourage outlets to do it if doing so is within their editorial mission. However, free expression requires that we acknowledge that the choice must be left up to each outlet -- that free expression includes the right to determine what one expresses, when and how.

5. Too much of our public discourse has come to be based on absolutes, whether it is religious extremism or fundamentalism or the kind of atheism espoused by people like Bill Maher. We need to admit our own fallibility, acknowledge that we only know so much and respect the views of others.

6. We also need thicker skin -- satire is designed to create discomfort and offense. If it doesn't, then it doesn't work. At the same time, the satirist needs to consider his or her own motivations -- is the goal to dismantle shibboleths or is there something else, a racial, ethnic or religious animus, or a personal attack? (Ross Douthat's post today offers an interesting discussion of some of this.)

7. Criticism of satire is not an attack on free speech, but an extension of it. Satirists need to acknowledge this and engage with their critics. What happened yesterday, however, was not criticism. It was murder and terrorism designed to stop the discussion.

As I said, these are my initial thoughts. I'm interested in hearing from others.

Originally published on my blog, Channel Surfing.
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Hank Kalet is managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. His column, "Dispatches," appears weekly in the Post and the Press and he writes a semi-monthly column for the Progressive Populist. He also is the editor of The Other (more...)
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