The huge Paris solidarity march, which included 40 world leaders, is over. The victims of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine massacre have been buried. The dust is beginning to settle on one of the most traumatic recent events on French soil. It is time to sit back and reflect on the issues, particularly ‘freedom of speech.’
For most people, the attack on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist was made against ‘freedom of speech’ and the catch cry Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) is a note of solidarity and defiance against the forces of intimidation and violence that seek to silence.
Some other statements that have come out since the January 7th massacre include:
• This attack had nothing to do with Islam.
• The attack on the kosher grocery store in East Paris was not anti-semitic, because it was not a Jewish neighbourhood and Muslims shop there (never mind that the 4 hostages were Jewish). CNN expressed this skepticism.
• Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians helped spawn the Paris attack;
• The attack was the direct responsibility of Jews, Israel, and its Mossad who were the planners and financiers of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The goal? To enflame Islamophobia (this is the opinion of some French Muslims and officials in Muslim-majority countries).
Many accept these statements at face value. Yet, to fail to look at these issues thoughtfully means missing some important lessons and defending truth at all costs.
First of all, the issue of ‘freedom of speech.’ It is recognized as a human right by the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Yet, even in the freest of western societies, there are boundaries to absolute freedom of speech. These include, but are not limited to, the following: slander, obscenity, pornography, libel, incitement, copyright violation, public security and order, hate speech, and defamation. Freedom of speech is not a verbal ‘free for all;’ to do otherwise is socially irresponsible.
Entering into a magazine office and murdering in cold-blood the cartoonists who offended the killers is heinous, vile act and deserves universal condemnation. Again, our condolences to the friends and families of the victims, including the police.
But there has to be some perspective, too. First, France is a nominal Catholic country with a very strong secular streak. Its savage satire would not be tolerated in other freedom loving countries. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, which lampooned politicians, the powerful, and religion, had a reputation of being vulgar, highly offensive, blasphemous, and in shockingly poor taste. Bruce Crumley of Time Magazine stated:
Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive because you can in infantile ....
Satire, defined as the genre of literature which can be humorous but it exposes the faults of government, the arts, and powerful individual in the public square, with the intention of forcing improvement. It can be a laughable form of social criticism. We all enjoy a good political cartoon (my favourite cartoonist is Mark Knight of the Melbourne Herald Sun).
When done rightly, satire can bring needful change. Normal satire targets the empowered, not the marginalized and weak. If, as it has been alleged, that French Muslims, who constitute 7% of the population, have received a disproportionate amount of ridicule through Charlie Hebdo cartoons, then satire takes on a whole new and ominous meaning. Again, the offense caused does not in any way justify murder, but neither does such satire bring positive social change.
In essence, ‘freedom of speech’ is a general western value. What was at stake with Charlie Hebdo was not just freedom of speech, but freedom to offend and even ‘freedom to blaspheme.’
Freedom of speech is invaluable to thriving democratic societies. If we lose it, freedom in general goes with it. Maturity and fair-mindedness must decree that freedom of speech needs to be defended, even if it is offensive. After all, censure of such offensive from the public can be far more effective than passing laws. Albert Mohler, in his book Culture Shift, writes ‘The risk of being offended is simply part of what it means to live in a diverse culture that honors and celebrates free speech’ (Page 30). What about blasphemy? If we criminalize it, then we are no different to Pakistan and its blasphemy laws, which is a capital crime. Currently, there are 16 people on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy, many protesting their innocence. Do we really want to go in that direction?
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