In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times writer Frank Bruni says "I've been called many unpleasant things in my life…but I chafe at this latest label: A threat to your religious liberty."
Bruni is gay, and he resents people claiming that their religion allows them to discriminate against same-gender couples and individuals in arenas such as marriage, parenting, and employment. Indeed, an increasing number of bakers, photographers and other wedding vendors are claiming the right to not serve gay couples.
I totally agree—it's pathetic that adults hide behind religion to selfishly and piously opt out of our American constitutional covenant.
Many gay people seem shocked, SHOCKED, that religious people would do this to them. But as I documented in my 2007 book America's War On Sex, religious adherents have been doing this to a majority of Americans for decades. (It typically, though not always, centers around religion's obsession with sex.)
Just to pick a few recent examples, under the guide of "freedom of religion,"
- Christian pharmacists claim they have the right to not dispense medication whose purpose they disapprove of;
- Muslim taxi drivers claim they have the right to not carry passengers who carry alcohol;
- Orthodox Jews claim that Rabbis have the right to suck babies' penises as part of the circumcision ritual;
- Congressional Christians blocked the proposed requirement that school sex education be scientifically accurate;
- Many Christian organizations have sued the federal government, claiming that they are exempt from the mandate to provide employees the option of free contraception. These same recipients of federal grants claim the right to discriminate in employment and service delivery.
As a conscientious American, I am sick of the religious exceptionalism we pay for every day. Religious people believe they should get a break from the normal rules that govern us because they believe in something that's supposedly bigger than the rules; or because of "tradition"; or because lots of other people believe as they do. That's just wrong.
Who decides what's a religion (whose adherents get government privileges), what's "just" a cult, and what's plain silly? (Remember, every "religion" starts out as a cult.)
According to the most radical part of our Constitution, government is NOT supposed to decide—it isn't supposed to "establish" a religion. When the government decides that Judaism is a "religion" but the Church Of Bacon isn't, the government is "establishing" a religion. And when the government decides both are "religions" (the Church of Bacon is now "established" by Nevada law), the government is still taking sides against some other groups it derides as a mere "cult" (funny, no one has proposed the Church Of Broccoli).
When the government decides which Iron Age desert hallucinations form a religion, and which are simply delusions, it is "establishing" a religion.
The Constitution does NOT say that all religious practices are legally acceptable (female genital cutting? Mescaline as an adolescent rite-of-passage?). Nor does it say that government should facilitate every behavior inspired or required by religion (covering your face in a driver's license photo? Refusing your kid's life-saving blood transfusion?). Nor does the Constitution promise that government will help people PRACTICE their religion—only that it won't prevent people from BELIEVING what they choose to believe.
But America's religious leaders now demand that government help people practice any silly thing they believe their religion requires, which is a threat to our way of life. Gay people are not the only ones who are considered "a threat to religious liberty." It's everyone who wants to do something of which some religious people disapprove. If that sounds like tyranny, it is. It's why the Puritans left England—because they didn't want their lives controlled by others' religious beliefs.
Crucifying democracy on a cross of religious liberty is a crime against humanity.
I write for a living. I lecture large audiences for a living. I piss people off for a living. Je suis Charlie.
My comrades were murdered for expressing opinions that others don't like. Ordinarily, we'd call those murderers psychopaths. But because their instructions to kill supposedly came from their god rather than from random psychic noise, they're considered "religious extremists."
That's too polite. It subtly helps limit their responsibility for their behavior. Of course, that's a primary goal of religion—to codify the ways in which people are not in charge of this world, and to provide a vocabulary for not thinking about difficult things. That vocabulary is called "faith." Faith is the exact opposite of thinking. It's therefore in opposition to others thinking.
Here in the US you aren’t likely to be murdered for expressing unpopular ideas, but our society is becoming increasingly unsupportive of self-expression. College campuses now have “free speech zones.” If a student wants to hand out leaflets criticizing the government (or the college), she has to apply for a permit. If she gets one—generally several weeks hence—she can only hand out leaflets in a tiny area on the outskirts of campus. Ironically, most campuses can expel anyone who starts a spontaneous rally about my dead colleagues tomorrow.
And in the classroom? Students are warned not to express ideas that will hurt others’ feelings. Professors are asked to warn students before giving lectures or assigning readings that might make students uncomfortable.
Around campus? Most universities now have speech codes, which demand that students not express ideas that will make others feel unwelcome, or embarrassed, or challenged. The student with the weakest sensibilities now has veto power over what others can say. And no one has to develop critical faculties for rebutting arguments; they can simply faint, or complain that they feel insecure.
Public libraries? Increasingly, Americans are demanding the removal of books with ideas they don’t like. Parents are demanding the removal of books from school reading lists that might upset their children, or portray actual adolescent feelings of shame, lust, guilt, confusion, or anger.
Pornography? It’s everywhere, but no one wants to teach kids how to handle it (beyond “stay away from it”), psychologists don’t want to teach clients how to handle it (beyond “porn causes addiction and impotence”), and “morality groups” are working to eliminate it from the internet.
Je suis Charlie. But there are more ways to reduce free expression than murder. America’s becoming more and more comfortable with too many of them.
I am Charlie Hebdo, standing with Free Expression and against the violence that would destroy it. Perhaps you are Charlie Hebdo, too.
But is America Charlie Hebdo? In many crucial ways, no, as America becomes more offended and less tolerant of free expression every day.
Last week, I called CNN's management cowards for refusing to show Charlie's first post-massacre cover (it was neither obscene nor libelous). They self-righteously claimed their decision reflected respect and tolerance. Nonsense. Self-censorship to protect yourself from violence may be smart, but it expresses neither respect for others nor tolerance of diversity.
Pathetically, The New York Times announced a similar policy, refusing to show the image that is one of the world's central stories of 2015—but refusing to admit their reason was fear of violence. CNN and The Times boldly support the publication of the cartoons abroad, but not here. That Atlantic Ocean inspires a lot of courage for others' risk-taking.
So how would Charlie Hebdo and its covers fare if published here? Not just reported on as news, but actually published and distributed. Sadly, that's where America's ambivalence about free expression would become visible. I'm not talking about "We shouldn't insult Muslims, they're people too;" no, it's much worse. America has descended into a parody of a Waldorf kindergarten in which no one's feelings must ever be hurt.
If those cartoons were published and distributed here,
- Their distribution (whether for money or for free) would be prevented on most college campuses (as speech hurtful to others);
- Students on many campuses would successfully insist they not be discussed in class;
- Dozens of cities would pass a resolution condemning them and attempting to limit their availability;
- Many high schools would suspend any student caught with one;
- Many adults would complain that they constitute a hostile work environment and demand they be banned from the workplace—and employers would comply, fearing lawsuits.
And when these events were covered on the 10 o'clock news, the troublesome magazine cover would not be pictured, for fear of offending a few viewers and a local anti-hate-speech group.
If you doubt this, consider the following recent events.
- The annual production of the Vagina Monologues was recently discontinued at Mt. Holyoke College—a prestigious all-women's school with a proud liberal tradition—because it might make transgender students who don't have vaginas feel left out.
- Model and former Miss Universe Australia Erin McNaught has been trashed in the blogosphere for posting attractive bikini photos of herself four weeks after giving birth. Apparently many non-model new mothers women feel implicitly criticized by McNaught's proud display.
- College students are increasingly demanding "trigger warnings" on class lectures and reading assignments. This feminist-based concept claims that students need assistance in protecting themselves from material they will find upsetting and hard to engage.
- More and more events are being described as "microaggression" and "microassault," the feminist concept which claims that everyday interactions that make someone feel lonely, ignored, unattractive, judged, or inferior should be seen as part of a broad political dynamic—and eliminated.
- Worst of all, virtually all college campuses have now institutionalized speech codes, which dictate that a student must not say or do anything that another student might find emotionally hurtful. Sitting around campus reading—not proselytizing, just reading—Playboy, or Mein Kampf, or a history of the KKK (even one that denounces the KKK) is enough to invite disciplinary action or even expulsion. Yes, really. (See www.TheFire.org for examples.)
- So a publication like Charlie Hebdo which routinely satirizes and criticizes Muslim violence, Jewish avarice, religion in general, the nationalist right, and politicians in general would not find a welcome home here in the U.S.. We can cheer the overseas courage that publishes and protects it, but as a people we are simply not strong enough to tolerate these emotional challenges in our own country.
But isn't satire a right?
"No," says The Humanist editor Maggie Ardiente, "It's an obligation." And the more it's condemned, the more it's needed.