"Je suis Charlie" march participants in Brest, France. Photo by Flickr user photograpix.
After terrorists attacked the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week, killing 12 people, individuals and organizations around the world rallied in support of free expression.
On Sunday, a massive group of French citizens marched in Paris and elsewhere in France in response to the attacks, joined by over 50 leaders and dignitaries from other countries. “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) has become a rallying cry, echoed everywhere from Twitter to George Clooney’s acceptance speech when he received a lifetime achievement award at this weekend’s Golden Globes ceremony. Free expression is seemingly on everyone’s mind.
So how would we react if terrorists threatened any publisher who, say, issued a map that included the state of Israel? Now suppose that same demand came from a group of Middle Eastern governments, rather than al-Qaida or the Islamic State group. One last thing: Suppose a major Western publisher complied and literally edited Israel off the map.
No need to imagine that last one. It already happened.
HarperCollins wanted to sell atlases to school administrators in the Middle East. Most of Israel’s neighbors prefer, when possible, to forget or deny that the nation exists. HarperCollins made a commercial decision to appeal to that preference in the map it produced to educate the region’s children about the facts, or in this case the locally preferred fantasies, of the place in which they live.
Had this been a company with headquarters in Cairo or Amman, nobody would give this a second thought. But because it is a Western company, there was a predictable uproar. After The Tablet, a Catholic publication, broke the news of HarperCollins’ choice to quietly delete Israel in order to sell more books, many took to Amazon, where the book had 150 one-star reviews at the time of this writing.
HarperCollins quickly pledged to destroy the old maps and print new ones. It might as well not bother, however, since it probably won’t sell any of the corrected editions. As Collins Bartholomew, the HarperCollins subsidiary that specializes in maps, told The Tablet, the original decision was made to follow “local preferences,” and including Israel would have been “unacceptable” to customers in the Gulf. Those customers will still find any cartographic recognition of Israel to be unsuitable for schoolchildren.
By far the most effective form of censorship is self-censorship. Everyone engages in it, to one degree or another. Many American media outlets, for example, refused to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that most offended Muslim audiences, namely those that depicted the prophet Muhammad. If organizations like The Associated Press and NPR acted out of fear of violence, it would be terrible. I doubt they did, however. I think they were most likely following longstanding policy dictating that they try to avoid publishing material that they know will be offensive to a substantial part of their audiences. It is the same principle that led The Washington Post to refrain from using the name of its local NFL franchise in editorials.
Charlie Hebdo actively sought to offend people, as was its right under French law - and under American law too, for that matter. The attackers’ grotesque actions permit no defense or justification, and I offer none. But if someone were to point out that an observant Muslim in France is expected to tolerate what she sees as blasphemous caricatures of her holy prophet but is not permitted to fully veil her face in public, we could understand why such a woman might feel she is being subjected to a double standard. Free expression has limits everywhere, even in places where it is generally valued highly - France and the rest of Europe most definitely included.
Wearing an American flag (or burning one) is recognized as a protected form of expression in the United States. So is wearing a veil. So is displaying a swastika or other Nazi symbol, which is against the law in Germany. So is publishing a classified government document, which is illegal in the United Kingdom. Europe has collectively imposed a “right to be forgotten” on Google and other American online search engines, backed by the threat of heavy fines and other legal action. It’s not enforcement via AK-47, but it isn’t the kind of empathy-driven self-censorship that we ask, but usually do not demand, here. Even in the United States, there are some places, notably college campuses, in which attitudes toward free expression seem to be trending more toward the European model than our own.
This is not to mention the heights self-censorship can reach when those in power truly push for it. In China, government-led self-censorship has practically been raised to an art.
Extremists will always violently target those who oppose them. That’s what makes them extremists. They seldom succeed for long, however, in suppressing whatever they want to violently suppress. The real limits on free expression do not come from the barrel of an AK-47. They are deployed via a judge’s gavel, a bureaucrat’s fine or a simple threat not to do business with someone who publishes something deemed offensive. The battle is truly lost when publishers, journalists and individuals decide that self-censorship is their only course of action.