“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.”

-Molly Ivins

Let’s talk about free speech and satire, for a moment.

There has been a lot of interesting pushback to all the “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity.

“Murder is vile and unconscionable. Freedom of the press must be protected. But racist trolling is not heroism. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie,” tweeted Laurie Penny of the New Statesman, echoing the sentiment of many.

“In an unequal world, satire that ‘mocks everyone equally’ winds up serving the powerful,” Saladin Ahmed noted, also on Twitter.

Jennifer Schuessler writes over at the New York Times that “some in the cartooning world are also debating a delicate question: Were the victims free-speech martyrs, full stop, or provocateurs whose aggressive mockery of Islam sometimes amounted to xenophobia and racism?”

I think it’s important to be careful how we talk about this. This desire to hold satire to a high standard is a good impulse. To ask that people earn the right to be listened to by choosing their targets carefully and punching in the right direction is simple best practice.

Still, this suggestion that Some Things Should Be Off-Limits makes me a little nervous. “Nope, sorry, RIGHT satire only” – that, to me, is a slippery thing to say.

“We love satire,” people say, “but that’s not satire. That’s racism. That’s xenophobia. If we saw satire, we would embrace it and protect it. If it were funny, we would laugh.” This feels very dangerous. This is a very malleable line.

I know many sane and reasonable people who will say, “No, I think I can draw a line, and it isn’t actually all that malleable,” and yes, you could probably draw a line that would be very satisfactory to a large number of people. And yes, “How dare you say I couldn’t SAY EVERYTHING I WANTED TO?” is a classic first-worlder’s tantrum. And yes, in an unfair world, giving immunity to all directions of punches seems like cruel piling on. I grant all that. But I think to protect the “right” kind of satire, you have to protect the “wrong” kind. Because there will come a day when you find yourself on the wrong side of the line.

Even the best get it wrong. Remember when the Onion had to apologize for and retract that tweet? There needs to be room for people to flub and be bad at it, because otherwise you risk losing the stuff that counts.

I wish we were able to invoke civility in this debate. Which sounds bonkers – like debating what is the right fork to use in a foxhole. It seems like a small-bore approach to a large-bore problem, a discussion about ideas deeply enough held that people are willing to kill or die for them.

Still, the whole point of civility, in its ideal form, is to offer a set of rules that you apply to yourself no matter whom you’re dealing with. Regardless of whom you’re walking into a building with, it is polite to hold open the door. It’s a certain measure of courtesy that you afford to everyone — a consideration of their feelings that you take because it’s the right thing to do.

And going in with the principle that you should conduct yourself toward others with a certain measure of consideration, you are able to have a much more productive discussion than if everyone’s stuck trying to rule what other people can and cannot say. Whether or not you say a thing is something you can actually control. Whether or not a thing gets said, by anyone, is something you can’t.

“As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” There’s a difference. What’s wicked is what other people tell you is wrong. What’s vulgar is what you tell yourself is beneath your own standards.

The Molly Ivins quote from above has been circulating, and it expresses some of the unease that people have felt in the wake of the attacks. But I think her choice of words is telling — that she calls punching down vulgar, and cruel, puts it in terms of courtesy. That’s how you get it to stop.

That doesn’t mean letting the bad stuff off easily, though. You can say, “You know, that’s not edgy, it punches the wrong way, and I don’t think it’s funny. A person who says a lot of things like that is not a person I care to listen to.” You should say that. That’s how you move the conversation.

Yes, it’s hard, and yes, it’s slow, and yes, everyone draws lines in different places. Out of the places where everyone draws those lines, you get a consensus, and hopefully the conversation improves. But there’s a big difference between “I should not say that. I would not say that. I do not approve of anyone who says that” and “That is offensive and should never be said. Not even if it’s newsworthy. Not even if it’s what a conversation is about.”

That’s too far.

There’s a distinction between something that is right to say and something that you have a right to say.

So we have to approach this cautiously. There is a point when self-censorship becomes censorship, full stop. And that’s the point when you’re not saying something NOT because you think, well, I’d rather not be the sort of person who’s said that, it’s rude, it’s wrong, it punches down, but because I am afraid to say that because of the consequences. At that point it becomes intimidation.

Then you don’t change people’s minds; you silence them. And the whole point of all this — satire, art, any of it — is to puncture taboos and create a conversation that can change minds. “Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person,” as the Human Rights Committee observes.

More speech. Better speech. That’s the way up.