A few months after the staff of Charlie Hebdo was murdered by machine gun-wielding terrorists for mocking Islam and the prophet Mohammed, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau argued that the magazine had “abused” its satirical license by provoking a marginalized group:
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
This sentiment—that parts of society that progressives consider to be non-privileged should not face criticism or ridicule from groups progressives consider to be privileged—is widely held on some quarters of the left, and it has emerged again in the wake of the free speech controversies at Yale and the University of Missouri. Here’s the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb making a similar apologia for America’s crusading campus censors:
The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.
During the debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Senator J. Lister Hill, of Alabama, stood up and declared his opposition to the bill by arguing that the protection of black rights would necessarily infringe upon the rights of whites. This is the left-footed logic of a career Negrophobe, which should be immediately dismissed. Yet some variation of Hill’s thinking animates the contemporary political climate. Right-to-offend advocates are, willingly or not, trafficking in the same sort of argument for the right to maintain subordination.
Cobb’s prose is eloquent, but his argument is nonsensical. The “First Amendment fundamentalists” he derides earlier in the piece would readily acknowledge that criminal harassment, threats, and intimidation do not constitute protected expression. But the attacks on free speech that have generated so much national media attention have nothing to do with this kind of conduct. In what sense did the Yale email that questioned whether the university should really be in the business of policing Halloween costumes “impose on the liberty of another”? In what sense are defenders of the University of Missouri journalist who tried to photograph protesters in a public space “trafficking in the same sort of argument for the right to maintain subordination” as a Jim Crow lawmaker?
The most worrisome element of Cobb’s argument, however, is the idea that progressive victimhood hierarchies supersede rights to political advocacy and dissent. Good (read: “disempowered”) groups are entitled to free speech, while bad (read: “powerful”) groups are not, at least when their speech is considered offensive towards the “disempowered.” Not only is this understanding of freedom of speech fundamentally at odds with liberalism, it creates what Ross Douthat has called “an intellectual straightjacket” by “assuming that lines of power are predictable, permanent and clear.”
In fact, as the current campus controversies highlight, supposedly clear-cut progressive distinctions between punching up and punching down, between disempowered victim and privileged oppressor, are actually awfully flimsy. Cobb accepts Yale students’ claim to victim status because they purport to be fighting bigotry (like insensitive Halloween costumes). But twenty years from now, when these privileged individuals are running our government, our universities, and our financial institutions, it will be much less clear that they are “relatively disempowered” and therefore entitled to be immune from criticism.