Reframe: nobody has a right to be served by journalism

"No one has a right to not be offended" is powerful rhetoric.

Some time has passed since the tragedy at the office of Charlie Hebdo. I’ve been gathering my thoughts.

I’ve been honoured to have many important and challenging conversations about that terrible day with insightful, intelligent people. There have also been jerks. One response from some commentators is that folks demanding some nuance in the reporting must be apologists for the attack. Rubbish.1

In our desire to bring nuance to this discourse, is a need to brace ourselves for the simplistic and reductionist arguments. Very simply, we care about the impact of what we say and write. Others don’t, er, care.2

Even Pulitzer Prize winning Garry Trudeau was accused, in the pages of The Atlantic, of being an apologist: “For this long record of death and destruction – and for many other deaths as well – Garry Trudeau blamed the people who drew and published the offending cartoons.”3

I was lucky though. As soon as I heard about the attack, I went to Wikipedia.

I think this is interesting. I’m not the only one, obviously. The Wikipedia articles were already very filled out. I believe that they were, by the time I read them, already the most direct, context-giving and precise articles about the event.

At Wikipedia I learned that Charlie Hebdo was a far-left, anti-racist (mostly), anti-fascist magazine. You couldn’t learn those things from national news outlets in the first few days.4

I also learned that this tragedy was not the worst terrorist attack that France had suffered. This was relevant, I think, because it gave context to France’s colonial history; the cultural tensions with Algeria and Islam and also nationalism and white supremacy. Some of that historical context might have been helpful in those early days.

It might have helped Jesse Brown and Jen Gerson, for example, anticipated how their analysis would get taken up by anti-Islam types and white supremacists.5

I still see folks, mostly white of course, writing about how no one understands how anti-racist Charlie Hebdo is. I get it. Lots of their cartoons were anti-racist. Hey, I’m a lefty. I’m also an illustrator. I’m also atheist.6

But I’m also white.7

And I don’t care how anti-racist many of the cartoons were. There is a wide consensus that some of the cartoons were racist. Even Jen Gerson agreed to this, although, only in conversation with Brown, and later with me on Twitter. In her Postmedia column she hedges: “Are some of the depictions racist? Maybe.”

The racism is alienating. Even without being racist, the cartoons are alienating. As Brown learned, it’s not what the cartoons intend, it’s how they’re used that really matters.

So while some may argue that the cartoons were essential to the reporting, others, I think reasonably, argued that they weren’t really essential.

The point I’m getting to is that whether the cartoons are alienating or not, and why, and to whom, is actually very important. Newspapers claim to be reporting in the service of citizens. But a lot of citizens think that means white citizens. And, sadly, a lot of editors seem to think that too.

And so, to the media’s shame, it was left to mostly brown commentators to explain8 why it was reasonable for some news organizations to choose to either not publish the more alienating cartoons, or to publish them in a way that brought context and clarity.9

Meanwhile Gerson was running around yelling “chicken shit!” “terrorist!” “Muslims!” “free speech!” like she was channeling Ezra Levant.

I guess free-speech-outrage is only a defense of Postmedia publishing practices. The CBC is, apparently, not free to choose.10

Perhaps the most troubling claim that Gerson made was that any attempt to put the massacre in context was a veiled attempt to position “terrorism as a legitimate response to racist cartooning.”11 She wrote, essentially, that reporting that didn’t just focus on the actions and intentions of the terrorists were “inevitably” attempts to apologize for their deeds. Her article was a sustained argument against a “broader context.” Diabolical.12

This also explains the animus behind the shouting when some authors attempted to bring context and nuance and concern for Muslim communities in France and also Canada.

See. This is important.

It’s possible to report on the attack at Charlie Hebdo, while simultaneously denouncing that attack, while simultaneously showing concern for the victims of the attack, while simultaneously showing concern for Muslim communities.

I don’t get why this is a problem for Jen Gerson or, frankly, large portions of Postmedia.13

There was also considerable fear mongering, and rationalizing of state surveillance measures. The National Post published articles like “Paris shootings were an assault on democracy, new anti-terror measures coming to Canada: Stephen Harper says.14

This was the milieu that we found ourselves in.15 Sad, scared, angry. Preparing to gut civil liberties. Gerson laughing and yelling about chickenshit news and then, later declaring “I should have said the word ‘chickenshit’ a lot more, and without caveats.”

Actually there was another problem with Gerson’s screed that I found troubling. There’s this problem that Gerson has distinguishing between Muslims and Muslims that are terrorists. She kind of slides back and forth – referring in one moment to Muslims, and then to fanatics in the next. It’s not super clear. My hunch is that Gerson is going to wake up sometime this year, maybe while on vacation, and think to herself, “did I actually write that racist shit?”

“The fanatics can’t kill everyone. They can’t target every media outlet. The ‘Muslim street’ can’t riot forever. Sooner or later, it’s for the fanatics to make peace with a non-medieval worldview that can tolerate satire, dissent, and the art of offence.” – Jen Gerson, January 9th 2015

I’ve grown numb to racism in the pages of Postmedia, but it’s more unnerving when it’s from someone who’s not an over fifty white guy.16


It was in this milieu that one phrase appeared on the scene. And then it just kept getting repeated and repeated. You can still hear it bouncing around on Twitter and in panel talks about journalism and Charlie Hebdo.

The phrase I’m talking about is this: no one has a right to not be offended.17


Be wary of “Nobody has a right to not be offended”

When I would first hear the soundbite, I would twitch a little. And then as its frequency increased, the twitching got worse.

Yes, the declaration is truthy.18 1920 21 However, the most misleading and dangerous rhetorical devices are often true.

I no longer twitch when I hear it. Now I cringe with embarrassment.

This phrase is a free pass to turn any bad writing into someone else’s psychological problem.

One reason is that it sets a ridiculously low bar for writing. “It’s legal to say this,” is a laughable defense of bad journalism.

When critically considering a given piece of journalism, we might ask ourselves: was it informative? was it engaging? was it helpful? did it challenge bigotry? did it illuminate?

So it’s rather sad that others, when faced with criticism, are inclined to ask simply, was it legal?

At its core, this is an iteration of the free speech outrage we see put to use so often by various Postmedia writers like Corcoran, Coyne, Steyn and Murphy.

Look carefully at the way it’s operationalized and you’ll see it’s a rejection of any kind of criticism at all. Here are a few examples of how it works.

Are you angry because I wrote something poorly reasoned? I don’t care, because you don’t have a right to not be offended.

Are you outraged because I published something that demonstrated poor judgment and shouldn’t really be considered journalism? I don’t care, because you don’t have a right to not be offended.

See how it works? Here’s a few more.

Are you mad because I wrote something racist? Are you angry because my editors encouraged me to write something so obfuscating, and lacking context, that it misinforms while just barely passing the legal test for libel and hate speech? Are you judging me because we published something that alienates and increases the likelihood of racism and violence against people who are already marginalized in our community? Are you offended by the turd sandwich I just laid down in the middle of your public discourse?

All together now: I don’t care, because you don’t have a right to not be offended.22

This phrase is a free pass to turn any instance of bad journalism into someone else’s psychological problem.

It’s a brilliant rhetorical device. Be wary of its use.23

  1. And I’m not an apologist for the attacks either. I’ve noticed this need for writers to state this up front. And it’s unnerving to have to do this.
  2. Jen Gerson, for example, has admitted to not caring on several occasions.
  3. David Frum:
  4. Lisa Ravary mentioned it online on the Friday of that week. She’s not an NP regular, and the piece was an opinion piece.
  5. These folks are largely right wingers.
  6. Charlie Hebdo has been sued far more times by the Catholic Church than by Islamic organizations.
  7. And I have a lot of other privilege.
  8. This point was raised during a much more balanced and interesting exchange between Jesse Brown and Jeet Heer.
  9. So, for example, if the cartoons were racist, then the cutlines said so. See this Twitter essay for some interesting analysis of how to publish bigoted material in a way that challenges bigotry.
  10. Just to be clear, I think it’s reasonable for news organizations to choose to reprint the alienating cartoons, as long as they do so in a way that does not reproduce, or magnify, the alienating impact. Reprinting alienating cartoons in a way that glorifies them and reproduces, or magnifies, the alienating impact, is regrettable when they are about an already marginalized community that suffers from systemic racism. If an news agency reprints racist material, and doesn’t try to mitigate the racism, then the news agency is racist.
  11. Jen Gerson, January 9, 2015, National Post: “One can even argue they contributed to marginalizing a persecuted minority within France. But here’s the problem with arguments that try to put the massacre into this broader context. Inevitably they all seem to contain some variant of the cringeworthy line: “I don’t believe cartoonists should take a bullet in the brain for drawing pictures… BUT.” This weasely assertion is often used to couch an argument that pretends it doesn’t treat terrorism as a legitimate response to racist cartooning.”
  12. See her article here:
  13. In fairness, Ishmael N. Daro did an excellent job.
  15. This article gives some insight into the political use of the story. Also, Teju Cole, “Unmournable Bodies”.
  16. I accused Jen Gerson of fundamentally misunderstanding racism on Twitter. She laughed it off. But this quote is from her article: “Ignore the obvious point that Mr. Studer’s proclamation is totally inconsistent with past practices: the CBC, and every other media outlet, routinely runs content that is “offensive” to people who can be identified as “a group”: Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, Conservatives, Communists, etc.” Folks who thinks trash talking Catholics or Conservatives or Muslims are all the same thing, are fundamentally ignorant about how racism works.
  17.  The actual Salmon Rushdie quote is “Nobody has a right to not be offended.” He said this in an interview in 2012:
  18. There are actually many instances in which the claim is not true and I feel compelled to address them here in the footnotes. Firstly, almost the entire canon of Canadian law is built on the notion of giving and receiving offense. Yes, this concept is not about “feeling” offended. Rather, it is, by definition, that offense is given when someone’s rights are transgressed or a law is broken. That is why we speak about offenders. The point I’m making is that, broadly, people do have rights against certain kinds of offense. For example, I have the right to not be offended by someone punching me. And I have a right not to be offended by being lied about in a newspaper. The state protects my rights to not be offended in these ways. Now many people will say, hey that’s not what we’re talking. And maybe that’s right. And also maybe people don’t really understand what they’re talking about. If all folks are saying is that only certain kinds of offense are considered covered by law, then yay, tautologies are great.
  19. Secondly, even if we’re not talking about “giving” offense or “being” offended as much as “feeling” offended in the colloquial sense of, hey, my feelings are hurt and “you offended me,” there are many interesting provisos. Even in this sense, rights, unbeknownst to most, are contextual. In fact, in many contexts, people do have a legal right to be protected against that kind of offense. Consider, for instance, a court of law. The judge presiding over a court of law actually does have a right against being offended, as does the court itself and its officers. We call this bundle of laws “contempt of court” laws and they are precisely designed to protect the dignity of the court. Similarly so in Canadian Parliament. Certain kinds of offense are strictly forbidden. The rules and laws of conduct protect the rights of parliamentarians to not be offended in many interesting ways.
  20. I do think it’s also worth considering social contexts. Take for example a funeral. We can imagine many things that a person could say or write or do, that would be offensive to a widow. Most everyone would consider it a moral right of a widow to not be offended at a funeral for her partner. I think these socially important contexts are actually interestingly similar to journalistic contexts.
  21. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, there are many things said, taught, or written that are not protected by law, precisely because they give offense. Our right to speech, as Canadians, is limited. Not even our religious freedoms remove the limits on our speech rights. Some speech, like blasphemous libel, and seditious libel, can result in very serious repercussions. Speech that causes opprobrium and enmity towards identifiable groups, racial or religious or otherwise is hate speech and therefore prohibited.
  22. And you also don’t have a right to be served by journalism.
  23. For really interesting reads on the PEN debacle, check out Kim O’Connor, “An open letter to Art Spiegelman” and Jeet Heer, “The Aesthetic Failure of ‘Charlie Hebdo'”.