debate between John Cleese and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, televised shortly after the film's release in 1979, in which the bishop claimed that Cleese’s humor would be the downfall of Christendom. It was presumed I should sympathize with that view.
But history has proven the bishop wrong. These days, entertainers like Cleese and Ricky Gervais, down to political types like Bill Maher, and further down to purportedly serious types like Richard Dawkins, and so on, are not the faithful’s principal concern. Sure, I might wish for less crass humor at the expense of religion, or for more serious engagement with the arguments by those who purport to be high-minded. But I am ultimately comfortable with the debate, because that’s what it’s all about: a prolonged exploration of the issues that hopefully turn up flecks of truth along the way.
No, the problem for Christendom is that today, the televised debate between Cleese and the bishop probably couldn't happen without an elaborate scheme of trigger warnings, possibly resulting in a disinvitation or calling the whole thing off.
Last week, several members of PEN America, "a nationwide community of novelists, journalists, editors, poets,
essayists, playwrights, publishers, translators, agents, and other
professionals," decided that they would not honor those murdered at Charlie Hebdo. In short, even avowed free-speech advocates start checking the fine print of their mission statement when the speech in question takes a critical eye at a presumptively aggrieved minority.
Matt Welch takes the air out of the charges that Charlie Hebdo is racist, but that misses the point. Liberalism has legal and cultural components. Legally, we guarantee free speech. Culturally, however, we try to signal that certain speech is boorish and unwelcome. What irked Christians about Piss Christ, for example, was cultural radicals misusing the law for cultural ends. Everyone understands artists are provocateurs, but surely the state need not subsidize the provocation. That was liberalism’s left foot stepping on its right foot — going beyond legally permitting speech to affirmatively encouraging oafish, disrespectful speech. It was the law treading on culture.
The massacre of Charlie Hebdo is the opposite. Muslims deserve cultural respect like anyone else. And in the abstract, we might be uncomfortable with ridiculing religion just to have a go. It's a jerk move. On the other hand, when Muslims threaten violence against lawful speech, that’s the right foot treading upon the left — culture trouncing the law.
This aggression will not stand, man. That culture needs to be reminded of its place. One way to do that is for liberalism to flex both its legal and cultural muscle. It can reaffirm its legal protection for free speech regardless of who it offends. And just as important, it can widely publicize the cartoons and venerate their deceased creators. Tastefulness is a luxury liberalism cannot afford. Yes, the works might disrespect many good, faithful Muslims’ beliefs, and that is unfortunate. But it appears that too many have not taken the lesson that their culture must co-exist within a legal framework.