In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at the offices of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, a hashtag has swept the internet: #JeSuisCharlie. I am Charlie. New York Times columnist David Brooks doesn't buy it. "Let’s face it," he writes, "if they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down."
This is...almost certainly true. I am not Charlie. Nor are you, and nor is virtually anyone who didn't produce, or at least read, Charlie Hebdo. Most of the people hashtagging their posts #JeSuisCharlie would have recoiled at much of what Charlie Hebdo actually printed. Many of the people saying they are Charlie would have been protesting outside Charlie's offices.
Most of us don't want to be Charlie Hebdo. As Brooks writes, "Most of us don't actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in." What we want is for there to be a Charlie Hebdo. And that doesn't just mean protesting mass slaughter, which should horrify us regardless of its target. It means being tolerant of speech we dislike — being able to oppose it without trying to completely shut it down.
The sentiment behind #JeSuisCharlie is beautiful. But the hard thing in free societies isn't supporting free speech in the abstract when it's threatened by savages. It's tolerating specific acts of free speech when it's speech you find offensive.