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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

Should Charlie Be Polite?

with Henry F. Tonn and Bill Kowaleski

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[Henry] Interesting article, Don, by you and Lerman.

I have mixed feelings about the Charlie Hebdo issue since I think the publication was trashy and didn’t do a thing for me. But PEN stands for, among other things, freedom of expression. So, if they want to, I suppose they can give the award for that rather than any literary excellence.

I have mixed feelings about this Garland, Texas, issue also. We have freedom of speech in the USA. Great. Do we have to flout it by having cartoons about Muhammed when it antagonizes other religions? I’m not sure of the point. It seems like a little respect would be more appropriate in this country, as wrong as the terrorists are.

[Bill K.] Great discussion about this topic in this week’s BwS (618), but there’s one aspect of this that keeps gnawing at me.

There are limits to free speech. U.S. courts have determined that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, or inciting a mob to riot go beyond the boundaries of allowable speech. In Germany, you can’t advocate a return of Nazism. Revealing military secrets is a crime just about everywhere.

Charlie Hebdo is a deliberately offensive publication, just as Rush Limbaugh and many other political commentators are deliberately offensive. And it is this aspect of the controversy that most troubles me, because it seems like this award is linked to the attack. Yes, I know PEN says it’s about press freedom, but without the attack, there would almost surely be no award.

The attack was a terrible, indefensible act, period. The problem is, that all of this provocation, all of this rudeness and insensitivity that we all have to endure every day, all of the “I’m right and you’re stupid” stuff, has to stop.

Charlie Hebdo is, in that sense, a part of the problem. They provoke, they annoy, and, at least as far as I know, they don’t offer any constructive ideas to help people live together better.

And yes, the Garland event was an out-and-out provocation, a typical “stick in the eye” kind of thing that extremists love to do. It’s the kind of mindless self-indulgence that conveys the message “I’m right, you’re stupid, and I have no intention of trying to understand you.”

“Press freedom” becomes more important than contributing to a better society. This blind following of principles at the expense of common decency and respect has consequences.

Again, I do not advocate violence, but one has to have an appreciation for human nature and realize when he or she has crossed a line.

[Don W.] Thank you, Henry and Bill, for your very thoughtful responses. And you’ve done more; you provide a model of civilization, which begins with civilitas, or courtesy. It includes concern for others and a desire to make the world a better place.

Vérité en deçà des Pyrénées, erreur de l'autre. — Pascal, Pensées
Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, untruth on the other side.

The trouble is, of course, that we don’t always know what courtesy is. As we’ve seen, something trivial or silly in one culture may be taken as a mortal insult in another. Examples can be multiplied indefinitely. If you’re left-handed, you have what amounts to a social and even physical handicap in parts of Asia. And we don’t always know what courtesy is even on “this side of the Pyrenees.”

“You can ask the road to Rome.” — Anglo-Saxon proverb

The proverb means that the most innocent question, remark or friendly gesture can be taken amiss. If we have to hide behind fear of giving offense, how can we ever say or do anything?

“Life is problems,” to quote Spider-Man. We muddle through as best we can. If there are consequences, we try to put them into proportion. For example, Bewildering Stories does have rules of courtesy, and the editors apply them routinely.

One of our most important rules is explained in our article “When East Isn’t East.” The gist is: No stereotypes. In fiction, for example, authors can’t rely on cultural labels to tell us who their characters are; they can only describe the characters and tell us what they say and do.

However, that’s where it ends. What people say, do and even profess to believe is open to discussion. And that’s where stories begin in both fiction and real life.

“Don’t borrow trouble; it always costs more than it’s worth.” — proverb

How can the world keep things in proportion? The rule “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is well known to us from the Hebrew Scriptures, but it goes back a long way, to the Code of Hammurabi (1730 BCE). It was one of the great advances in civilization, because it defined justice as being equitable rather than the law of the vendetta.

Christianity takes equitable justice and due process for granted, of course, but its principle is transcendental: “Love your enemies... Do good to them that hate you...” (Mt 5:43-48). It’s phrased as a high moral precept, which it is, but it’s also practical advice: “There’s nothing to be gained in making more trouble than you already have. Do the opposite.”

The vendetta asks for trouble, and it’s exactly what the terrorists are practicing. “If I feel insulted — never mind why — I’ll shoot you.” Charlie Hebdo, whatever it faults, deserves due process, namely a reply in kind. Unfortunately, nothing has changed since Karen Armstrong’s book, which I reviewed eleven years ago: “When two sides become ideologically straitjacketed, they can no longer listen to each other. And from there it is a short step to being unable to tolerate each other’s existence.”

La France n’emprisonne pas ses Voltaire. — President Charles De Gaulle, about Jean-Paul Sartre’s activity in the “Events of May” 1968

When I was between my freshman and sophomore years, I picked up a French novel for summer reading. It was chosen mostly at random; I don’t remember where or how I came by it. I figured the language study would do me good. Little did I know what else I’d learn.

I was very young at the time, and was I ever shocked. The novel was La Religieuse, a dark, satirical tale of convent life and about as sordid as can be. Denis Diderot began it in 1760 but buried it in his files because of political troubles. It was published only in 1796.

Diderot is best known today for the Encyclopédie, a monument of the Enlightenment. Every self-respecting university library has a copy. And he got into trouble for that, as well. But the novel showed me another side of history: the bitter anticlericalism that religious strife and oppression had created in France. North America has known nothing like it.

De Gaulle had his verb tense right, but Voltaire spent years in prison or exile. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau was paranoid because his enemies were indeed out to get him. And, a century earlier, Cyrano de Bergerac was wounded in an assassination attempt. Why? Because they all had been “impolite.” They were saying things that powerful people did not want to hear.

Charlie Hebdo is far out of sight behind those giants of world literature. And being childish is simply uncalled-for. But that’s a difference in degree, not in kind. Making differences in degree embarks on a “slippery slope” that leads from the least of these to imprisoning Voltaires.

Bewildering Stories does not knowingly offend individuals, including religious icons. But I, myself, have on record two stories that I was sure, at the time, would contradict and even offend the beliefs of many of our readers and contributors. Anyone is free to reply in kind; that’s what literature is for.

Awards always come with a citation. I’ve stated mine. Okay, PEN, what’s yours?

Copyright © 2015 by
Henry F. Tonn, Bill Kowaleski, and Don Webb

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