Magazine | February 9, 2015, Issue

Being Sad Together

(Carsten Koall/Getty)

I was never Charlie. I support their right to stick out their tongue and blow raspberries; I do so from a safe distance with no thought of personal risk. My workplace does not have bullet holes in the wall, and I can’t draw.

It’s a nice expression of solidarity, but when the French said, “We are all Americans” after 9/11, you suspected the sentiment would die on their lips if Bush proposed conscription of all eligible males to fight a new war. Monsieur Chirac, names and addresses, if you don’t mind. Don’t worry, we’ll fly ’em here for training. The phrase meant, “We are sympathetic to your situation and can imagine how we’d feel if it happened to us, and we plan on crafting the proper response: gathering in a public space with candles and being sad together.”

Being Sad Together is the West’s secret weapon, apparently. The bad guys are supposed to look at the masses crowded into the elegant public spaces of a European capital and feel shame, because feelings were hurt. It is more likely the terrorists look at these events and think what a few stout fellows strapped with plastic explosives and ball bearings could do.

Being Sad Together is supposed to show a nation’s indomitable will: We will not be cowed by this heinous act for at least 48 hours, after which we shall fracture along the usual lines. Two points emerged as the glow of Being Charlie faded and the candles guttered. To wit:

One: We must not give in to Islamophobia. The ever-thoughtful overclass had the usual reaction: I may not agree with your co-religionists’ stoning homosexuals and oppressing women, but I will defend to the death your right not to be criticized by people with the wrong motivations. Well, I’ll defend it right up until the break, and then we have to go to a story about how rich Mitt Romney is.

To say that Islam had any connection to the events was regarded as a mark of simplistic thinking, like blaming Germany if someone drove a Volkswagen into a crowd of people. It was the act of extremists, a word used to cleave certain groups from the ideologies they wish to advance. (“Extremists” on the right, of course, are expressing the fundamental malevolence of anyone who is insufficiently statist or secular.) And why are these “extremists” not true representatives of the cause? Because they have “twisted” it. Sometimes they espouse a “warped” view, as if interpretation of religious texts were like a record that plays another tune entirely if you store it too close to the radiator. After the next terror attack, an expert may insist that the attackers had a “folded, spindled, and mutilated” version of whatever text was their motivation.

Terrorists could guillotine cartoonists at the Place de la Bastille and commentators would insist that “these are not French values.”

Two: We must have a conversation about the limits of speech, and by “conversation” we mean “Shut up and take notes.” Liberals were keen on free speech for a while, since the boring square WASP establishment had codes and laws that stifled expression and intellectual diversity. Everything ought to be free to be ridiculed, including the ridiculers. Why, if you put Lenny Bruce on a crucifix in a jar of urine, that would be the apex of the West right there. Especially if you pulled a string and he swore! Daring.

Eventually the liberals were supplanted by the progressives, who wanted to replace the social order instead of improve it. This meant splitting people into groups that subdivided like amoebas, each with its own narrative of oppression and supply of self-replenishing rage, all united against the symbol of the human species’ most powerful foe: some married guy who likes hamburgers and drives a truck. You end up with more genders than Heinz has varieties, and each of those subcategories can also choose to be offended on the basis of a remark about ethnicity, national origin, creed, height, appearance, eyeglass strength, preference for paper over plastic, and so on.

Thus: If you decline to hire someone who is one-twentieth Samoan, has earlobes stretched to accommodate gauges the diameter of a pie plate, and wants you to install a “polygender safe space” in the form of a third restroom, you are a hater, and speaking your opinion on the matter is hate speech, inasmuch as it does not validate the other person’s self-conception.

If, on the other hand, you put up a website devoted to fat people who drive scooters around Walmart with a Jesus Is My Co-pilot bumper sticker on the back, you are hilarious.

Since the purpose of speech has become the reinforcement of whatever orthodoxy has been minted over the weekend, speech that abrades the tender gums of the vanguard must not be afforded protection, and criminal penalties are necessary to bind rude tongues.

A more apt sign would have been Je suis Charlie. Mais . . . The “but” reminds us that life is a balancing act and there are no absolutes. It is wrong to murder cartoonists, oui, but we must understand the historical cultural intersectional Orientalist nativist colonialist racist othering at work, which is why we need the State to codify expression so that all dialogue runs on rails toward the desired destination. If some of those rails take a spur to the reeducation camp and people learn that there are things that cannot be thought, let alone spoken, that’s the best kind of free speech.

Tongue-bite macht frei. Says so right over the camp gates! Must be true.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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Being Sad Together

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