To say, “These murders should never have happened, but the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are obnoxious” trivializes the lives that were lost in Paris last year, even if it is done with a nod toward the tragedy. It conflates the violence of the terrorists with the distastefulness of the cartoonists’ chauvinisms, and these are not on par. Hate speech can be dangerous – Holocaust deniers or the Ku Klux Klan, for example, sow great darkness, and my time in Rwanda taught me how easily propaganda can drive ordinary people to appalling acts. Speech can be exploited to achieve terrible ends. I wouldn’t write if I didn’t believe in the power of words for good, and if one accepts that capacity, one must also recognize their potential to inflict damage. Words break bones.
But I came of age in the time of “Silence = Death,” the rallying cry of the 1980s AIDS activists, and I believe that muteness is in general more toxic even than speech. The flagrant punishment of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes for “insulting Islam” and “founding a liberal website,” derives from his government’s notion of civility, propriety, and security. If we are to err in one direction or the other, let us err in the direction of vulgarity, of obscenity, even of mean-spirited prejudice, and not in the direction of closedness, of being afraid to speak out, of a propriety that obliterates what writers, artists, or citizens believe to be uncomfortable truths.
Counterintuitive though it may seem, liberty of discourse leads to justice more readily than well-intentioned, enforced control does. Grievous lies and incitements to violence need to be checked. But decorum should always be a choice. Its violation alone cannot be a punishable infraction, nor grounds for mitigating whatever else you say about slaughter.
Andrew Solomon is the author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity and president of PEN American Center.