The defense of satire is the defense of free expression


In response to the terrorist attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The television coverage of the terrorist attack has been quite uniform in not showing the materials that led to the attack on the magazine’s offices, and that decision seems to me to be implicitly reinforcing the point that the gunmen were attempting to make, rather than asserting the opposite.

So I applaud Business Insider for reproducing a selection of the covers that have been most controversial not because I agree that all of the subjects necessarily warrant such treatment but because I don’t think that arguments about what might be offensive ought to be settled by gunfire. Indeed, although I am certain that the magazine has genuinely offended many groups, to some extent the effectiveness of satire can be measured by the offense that it provokes. But, in free societies, the outraged do not have license to resort to violence in an effort to suppress expression that they may deem especially offensive.

I also think that it is very important to emphasize that this satiric magazine has not been especially selective in its targets. Indeed, one of its covers highlights the fact that Jews, Catholics, and Muslims seem, ironically, to have become united in their hatred of Charlie Hebdo:
One of the covers deemed most inflammatory by some Muslims features a weeping Mohammed, who is bemoaning that “It is hard being loved by idiots”:
Another cover of an issue published after the killing of Osama Bin Laden imagines an Elvis-like afterlife for him:
Another cover focused on the rampant pedophilia in the Catholic Church and features Pope Benedict advising a cardinal to go into the movie business like Roman Polanski:
Another cover synthesizes the most banal elements of American “reality” television and American Christian fundamentalism, with the crucified Jesus shouting, “I’m a celebrity—get me out of here!”:
And just to be clear, Charlie Hebdo has been at this for decades. In 1971, one of the magazine’s covers advised “Vote Stupid—You Don’t Have a Choice”:
I am not a religious person, and perhaps that explains, at least in part, why the cover that has made me cringe the most is the following one, which reports on Michael Jackson’s death with the caption “White at last!”: