The secular backlash against Charlie Hebdo

as explained by South African Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee in an essay in his book Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (published 1996) –

The Intellectual

Rational, secular intellectuals are not notably quick to take offense. Like Karl Popper, they tend to believe that

I must teach myself to distrust that dangerous intuitive feeling or conviction that it is I who am right. I must distrust this feeling however strong it may be. Indeed, the stronger it is, the more I should mistrust it, because the stronger it is, the greater is the danger that I may deceive myself: and, with it, the danger that I may become an intolerant fanatic.

Convictions that are not backed by reason (they reason) are not strong but weak; it is the mark of a weak position, not a strong position, that its holder, when challenged, takes offense. All viewpoints deserve a hearing [ . . . ]; debate, according to the rules of reason, will decide which deserves to triumph. Such intellectuals also tend to have well-developed explanations (“theories”) of the emotions [ . . . ] and to apply these explanations in a self-conscious way, as far as they can, to their emotions. [ . . . ] The belief in fair play [ . . . ] that constitutes one of their more deeply entrenched values also encourages sympathy for the underdog, the subordinate, and discourages jeering at losers.

The combination of a close, rational watch over the emotions with sympathy for the underdog tends to produce a twofold response to displays of outrage on the part of other people. On the one hand, the kind of intellectual I describe sees outrage as pre-rational or irrational and suspects it of being no more than a self-deceiving disguise for a weak debating position. On the other hand, to the extent that he [ . . . ] recognises outrage as a response of the powerless, the intellectual may well take the side of the outraged, at least ethically. That is to say, without empathetic participation in the feeling of outrage, and perhaps even privately deeming outrage in itself to be backward, a too-easy slide into self-serving emotionalism, yet out of a belief in the right of the other to take offense, and particularly out of conviction that underdogs should not have their subordination redoubled by having it prescribed to them in what form they should object to being subordinated, the intellectual is prepared to respect and perhaps even defend other people’s taking offense, in much the same way that he or she might respect someone’s refusal to eat pork, while privately feeling the taboo is benighted and superstitious.

Complacent and yet not complacent, intellectuals of this kind [ . . . ], pointing to the Apollonian “Know yourself,” criticise and encourage criticism of the foundations of their own believe systems. Such is their confidence that they may even welcome attacks on themselves, smiling when they are caricatured and insulted, responding with the keenest appreciation to the most probing, most perceptive thrusts. They particularly welcome accounts of their enterprise that attempt to relativise it, read it within a cultural and historical framework. They welcome such accounts and at once set about framing them in turn within the project of rationality, that is, set about recuperating them. They are in many ways like the chess grandmaster, who, confident in his powers, looks forward to opponents worthy of him.

For someone who does not respect his own being-offended, it is hard to respect in the deepest sense other people’s being-offended. One respects it only in the sense that one respects the adherence of other people to creeds one regards as superstitious, that is to say, respecting their right to the creed of their choice while retaining every reserve about the creed itself, and maintaining this split attitude on the basis of the pragmatic, Lockean principle that if we do not interfere in the private lives of others, then they will be less likely to interfere in ours. It is a compromise between private conviction and public expression undertaken in the interests of civil order and neighbourliness, a much less than ethical stance requiring no more of us than that we make note of the feelings of fellow-citizens and behave scrupulously, at all points, as though we respect them. It does not require us to go further and actually, in our hearts, respect those feelings – respect, in particular, when these arise, feelings of outrage.


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