Today’s my birthday. When my husband asked what I wanted, I told him I wanted to feel young for a day. Spending the day in bed would have been one way to get my wish, but this is not what I had in mind: here we both are, in the grip of hacking colds. As I lie here, an adolescent spirit keeps whispering in my ear. I keep thinking about a feeling that animated much of my youth – and indeed the Sixties youth movement of which I was a part: outrage at the hypocrisy of power, whether in the little world of school and family or the big world of states and nations. Be careful what you wish for!
Huge crowds gathered in Paris on Sunday for a solidarity march with victims of the previous week’s terrorist attacks on the wildly offensive satire publication Charlie Hebdo and on patrons of a kosher supermarket. The victims were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists, and along with phalanxes of world leaders, there were pictures of marchers declaring the unity of all faiths. Thousands of people tweeted and posted an image of a Jew and a Muslim arm-in-arm wearing signs that read “je suis juif et j’aime les musulmans” and the reverse.
Many of my friends responded with links to commentary and cartoons calling out the hypocrisy of world leaders whose symbolic gestures in support of free expression contradict their own actions – detaining, torturing, and killing journalists in their own countries, for example.

World leaders criticized for support of Charlie Hebdo #NousSommesHypocrites

Credit: @DanielWickham93 / Rich's Monday Morning View

This is undeniable. Hypocrisy is an equal opportunity employer. I would venture that every public display of official virtue is essentially hypocritical in that there is not a single nation on the face of this earth that lives up to its stated ideals. All of them have ways – granted, some far more draconian than others – to punish people who display an excess of expressive freedom by saying or showing sentiments the state finds objectionable or merely by being a member of a vilified group.
State power is different from individual actions, of course, but the same applies, does it not? Who among us lives and acts in such congruence with espoused ethical and moral principles that the charge of hypocrisy cannot stick?
So I keep wondering what my friends who are calling out hypocrisy hope to accomplish by it. Certainly, it casts a shadow on the hundreds of thousands of ordinary hypocrites who turned out in Paris against hatred and intolerance. Certainly, it expresses something akin to the hurt and betrayal I recall from those long-ago youth movements. You claim to be an honorable person, we said to our elders, but I’ve seen who you really are.
Now these world leaders are standing up for perpetrators of deeply racist, sexist, offensive cartoons, my friends say, but they do not stand for others who are oppressed by their own policies. They prosecute some for exercising free speech, for instance, and protest when others are killed for it. Consider this very interesting New Yorker piece about differential treatment of Charlie Hebdo and the comments of French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.
Do my friends who are calling hypocrisy want to take the shine off whatever reflected glory world leaders might achieve by marching in Paris? Do they want to call the whole question of defending free expression for deeply offensive satire?
Do they fantasize that world leaders will return home and immediately eradicate censorship and other policies that restrict freedom of speech, association, or identity? Or – given that the easiest defense against hypocrisy is to stop proclaiming principles you don’t live up to – would they be satisfied for the moment with those leaders just staying home?
There’s been a flood of essays with titles that are variations on the theme “I Am Not Charlie.”Most of the authors want to defend the principle of free speech while condemning the ways Charlie Hebdo uses it. Pope Francis issued a tangle of casuistry defending free speech…so long as it doesn’t provoke or insult religion.
To me, it’s a good if imperfect thing when some of us stand publicly for the principle of free speech without conditions, even we hypocrites who may not have honored the principle in our own past actions.At least it starts a conversation. At least it can provoke self-reflection: if people who charge hypocrisy begin to question their certainty of their own virtue, that helps. If their charges actually do prod leaders toward a greater respect for liberty in both principle and practice, that helps. For me, what helps above all is to bring conscious awareness to our assumptions and thought processes, the antidote to all objectification. I’d like to get a free pass for my birthday, but sadly, today, as every day, #NousSommesHypocrites, and I can’t see much value in pretending otherwise.
Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, “Person to Person.”
[youtube: video=”easSRNI9qoQ”]

5 thoughts on “#NousSommesHypocrites

  1. Very thoughtful commentary as usual, Arlene. But I think that what the Pope was saying is that freedom of speech (which is essential) comes, like all freedom, with the responsibility to use it wisely, e.g. with consideration for the feelings of others. Self restraint does not equal loss of freedom; quite the contrary.
    While there do seem, sadly, to (still) be occasions on which it is appropriate to offend, I think such occasions should be relatively rare compared to careful, considerate, hopefully effective use of our ability to communicate with each other. The right to offend doesn’t mean that to offend is right.

  2. True. I consistently oppose both. Neither makes one immune to hypocrisy. Neither explains why calling out hypocrisy is an effective political tactic.

  3. Happy Birthday, Arlene Goldbard.
    You have given the readers today much to ponder on a serious subject for which there seems to be a plethora of varied opinions. And rightly so, because the subject of freedom of speech and of the press are rights that need to be defended if we hope to continue as a free democratic society. I would offer one caveat here, however: the morality and deleterious effect on the public good and safety must be taken into account — subjective matters to be sure.
    My initial reaction to the violation perpetrated by Charlie Hebdo, etal is one of horror, revulsion, and fear for the precedent that it sets. He went way far beyond the pale of human decency and respect. Whatever ‘end’ he was seeking far exceeded the means’ by which he used to effect it – with horrendous results. And the ‘terrorists’ responded as I think Charlie knew (hoped?) they probably would. They, too, were wrong. The end did not justify the means they chose either.
    Hebdo, and those of his ilk, are not what I would define as responsible professional journalists- persons who seek the truth by bringing hidden actions to the fore – particularly actions that harm a community – any community. Two examples among many would include corruption among public officials, and legislators who involve us in immoral wars and other heinous acts by doing the bidding of evil governments to satisfy their greed and hatred.
    I agree with every statement and rationale that Pope Frances said. I cannot add a word to it. Other civil and religious leaders have also commented in thoughtful, moral ways.

  4. My essay was about the charge of hypocrisy: its meaning, its animating ideas and feelings, and its impact. I’m not so sure how that segued into limits on free speech.
    But in any case, while the pope and every other individual should have the right to denounce offensive speech, we cannot limit the right to exercise unfettered expression to those we consider responsible, sensitive, constructive, etc. Create that limit, and it’s no longer free speech.
    History is full of scoundrels who used religion to justify or excuse their behavior, from the Crusades to the divine right that was thought to justify conquest of the Americas and harm to indigenous people to more recent examples of doctrine that oppresses women. We need to be free to call out injustice whomever perpetrates it, whether or not religion is part of the equation.
    What’s more, political winds change direction. If we accept a limit on speech that offends religion, tomorrow we will be made to accept a limit on speech that disparages a particular political viewpoint, party, or leader. The only way we can ensure freedom of expression is to establish a universal principle – and then exercise that liberty all we want to support the expressions we value and criticize those that seem harmful. Every day, I encounter things I find insulting or offensive to groups to which I belong. I feel responsible to denounce that, but I still defend their authors’ freedom of expression because I don’t want them to have the power to limit mine if the tables are turned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *