Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders has solemnly reaffirmed the right to joke. The French state – which banned the magazine three times between 1961 and 1970 – has piled in to defend laicity. A humid stupor presents itself as moral clarity, voiced by such statespeople as Le Pen, Wilders and Farage.
Liberals, who tend to distance themselves from Thomas Hobbes’s account of state power, have as partial a view of it as he did. Hobbes thought physical security mattered so much that people would trade most of their rights to get it. Liberals see the trade as overpriced, because it may well include things like free speech. Hobbes was clear-eyed about that. But he was much less clear on the other side of the question, as regards those for whom worldly security matters less than, say, their eschatological destiny. Either the concern for security lacks the decisive force that Hobbes needs it to have, or it has it, but recast as security not for one’s mortal coil, but one’s eternal soul. The avatars of modern jihadis spook the pages of Leviathan, and were hardly unknown to Hobbes: Thomas Harrison, a New Model Army commander and puritan fanatic, used to yodel ecstatically in battle when he saw royalists being run through. Hobbes’s case for obedience is vulnerable not only to liberal goods, but distinctly illiberal ones.
Do modern liberals have it better? John Rawls aspired to show that liberalism was more than ‘just another sectarian doctrine’. The aspiration is loftier than merely showing that liberalism is something we like more than theocracy or communism. A notable if chilly fact about human beings is that they usually kill one another for a reason – for example, when they believe vital goods are under attack. Rawls thought different world-views, secular and religious, could reach a ‘reasonable’ agreement or ‘overlapping consensus’. But when it comes to specifying its content, ‘reasonable’ faces problems parallel to those facing Hobbes’s ur-value of security. Reasonable people disagree: for Rawls, acknowledging this helps to shape what reasonableness is. Can people reasonably disagree about which disagreements are reasonable? Rawls says nothing that rules that out, and quite a lot that rules it in, since he thinks there are credal reasons – what he calls ‘burdens of judgment’ – why people disagree. That being so, ‘reasonable’ becomes cognate with a disposition to co-operate, rather than being defined by its content. Someone with absurd beliefs of the giant-turtle variety could still come out as reasonable, in this respect, if undisposed to proselytise: being reasonable is no longer a purely doxastic matter, but depends on liberal inclinations. In this respect it’s as stipulative as the Hobbesian desire for self-preservation.
Provocation targets others by affronting what they hold dear. As representations, some of the cartoons of Muslims in Charlie Hebdo are as grotesquely caricatural as those of Jews in Der Stürmer. How far satire subverts asymmetries of power, and so offsets them, depends on where it comes from and who it aims at. Since the provocateurs play on the difference between their own values and those they target, it’s unsurprising that the provoked act in line with what they value. I’ve defended elsewhere a broad content-based free speech norm, but it doesn’t follow that every exercise of free speech is valuable in itself, particularly if it further denigrates the downtrodden.
If nothing else the murderers have outed the norm, especially its blindingly simple no-holds-barred version, as an article of liberal faith. Robert Frost said that a liberal is someone who can’t take his own side in an argument. One could take that as a reductio of Rawls’s aspiration to elevate liberalism above sectarian doctrine. No hedging: I’d much rather live in France than under IS. I hope I’d be ready to die or kill if it came to a face-off. But the stakes are those of rival sanctities.