In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I have frequently thought of Wendell Berry's essay "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community." Here are some key quotes.
"A healthy community is like an ecosystem, and it includes--or it makes itself harmoniously a part of--its local ecosystem. It is also like a household; it is the household of its place...And to extend Saint Paul's famous metaphor by only a little, a healthy community is like a body, for its members mutually support and serve one another."
"If a community, then, is like a household, what are we to make of the artist whose intention is to offend? Would I welcome into my house any stranger who came, proud of his bad taste, professing his love for vile people and proposing to offend almost everyone? I would not, and I do not know anybody who would. To do so would contradict self-respect and respect for loved ones. By the same token, I cannot see that a community is under any obligation to welcome such a person. The public, so far as I can see, has no right to require a community to submit to or support statements that offend it." (155-156)
"I would distinguish between the intention to offend and the willingness to risk offending. Honesty and artistic integrity do not require anyone to intend to give offense, though they certainly may cause offense. The intention to offend, it seems to me, identifies the would-be offender as a public person [note: Berry contrasts "community" vs. "public" throughout this essay]. I cannot imagine anyone who is a member of a community who would purposely or gladly or proudly offend it, although I know very well that honesty might require one to do so."
"Our public art now communicates a conventional prejudice against old people, history, parental authority, religious faith, sexual discipline, manual work, rural people and rural life, anything local or small or inexpensive. At its worst, it glamorizes or glorifies drugs, promiscuity, pornography, violence, and blasphemy. Any threat to suppress or limit these public expressions will provoke much support for the freedom of speech. I concur in this. But as a community artist, I would like to go beyond my advocacy of the freedom of speech to deplore some of the uses that are made of it, and I wish that more of my fellow artists would do so as well." (157-158)
"I wish that artists and all advocates and beneficiaries of the First Amendment would begin to ask, for instance, how the individual can be liberated by disobeying the moral law, when the community obviously can be liberated only by obeying it. I wish that they would consider the probability that there is a direct relation between the public antipathy to community life and local ('provinicial') places and the industrial destruction of communities and places. I wish, furthermore, that they could see that artists who make offensiveness an artistic or didactic procedure are drawing on a moral capital that they may be using up. A public is shockable or offendable only to the extent that it is already uncomplacent or uncorrupt--to the extent, in other words, that it is a community or remembers being one." (158-159)
"The idea that people can be improved by being offended will finally have to meet the idea...that books, popular songs, movies, television shows, sex videos, and so on are 'just fiction' or 'just art' and therefore exist 'for their own sake' and have no influence. To argue that works of art are 'only' fictions or self-expressions and therefore cannot cause bad behavior is to argue also that they cannot cause good behavior. It is, moreover, to make an absolute division between art and life, experience and life, mind and body--a division that is intolerable to anyone who is at all serious about being a human or a member of a community or even a citizen." (159)
When the only thing that is sacred is the right to act as though nothing is sacred, then it would seem that, in Berry's terms, all you have is a "public," and certainly not a community. That's a statement about Berry's logic, not an empirical observation about contemporary France. But Berry raises important questions in this essay from the early 90's that are more relevant than ever.