The event in Paris at Charlie Hebdo was a very tragic and horrific affair. “Je suis Charlie” quickly became the meme. There was no justification for this brutality, period; full stop. But I also think the story, its lessons and consequences, are not as simple and straightforward as the media and most politicians have presented.
The 2.5+ million people in the streets of Paris and perhaps another 1.5+ million in other French cities were a spontaneous outpouring of solidarity. But why were these citizens on the street, did they really consider what got them out? I believe if questioned and after some reflection the majority would say they were not there mainly in support of free speech; rather they were there to decry and denounce terrorism. Terrorism’s evil cannot be debated; however, the question of free speech should be, it is more nuanced.
Free speech in most advanced societies is not without strings attached; nowhere is it permitted to write, say, print, post or draw anything you want – it is tethered to civil or criminal regulation. Defamation, the action of damaging good reputation, has a long history of statute. The crime of “libel,” (written defamation); and “slander,” (oral defamation) are upheld in courts every day.
Blasphemy, loosely speaking, defamation of someone’s god, is more troublesome. France abolished the offence of blasphemy in 1791. But this is far from universal in the world at large. A Pew Research analysis finds that as of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (22%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and one-in-ten (11%) had laws or policies penalizing apostasy. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death. In Europe, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Italy and Greece still prohibit some forms of blasphemy and are enshrined in their laws.
Hate speech regulation further limits free speech. Laws in many countries stop child pornography and hate speech against GLBT communities. Holocaust denial and other genocide denials are considered hate speech in Germany and most other EU states.
Sorry to belabor the point, but speech is abridged in many ways; and free speech is a very fluid concept.
David Brooks, columnist for the NY Times, published a thoughtful piece on January 8 titled “I am not Charlie Hebdo” and took a bit of heat for it.
Still, he got to the heart of the matter. We do need to be vigilant to protect our rights to free speech from infringement by the state; but we also need to nurture societal filters for respect and understanding of others and their beliefs.
Throughout history cartoonists and satirists have exposed “emperors with no clothes” to the long term health of us all; but there have also been fowl mouthed blowhards with no respect for anyone’s feelings – journalists with not much talent, just a bad case of coprolalia. Modern times and the atomizing of media are giving these types a megaphone that was not available to them before the Internet.
I think of a civic minded and pious Muslim; these cartoons must have been an ugly affront to him – I imagine his conflicted thoughts about the tragedy. Think of other speech disrespectful to the beliefs of other religious people – Christian, Jew, and Buddhist. I am not religious, but I’m not so prideful to think I know what really is in the great unknown.
I’m still not sure where I come down on all this. Inayat Bunglawala former spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, backed its demand for a “religious-hatred” law designed to shield Muslims from offensive speech or even sharp theological debate. Now, he says, his views have changed completely: the cost of seeing and hearing things you don’t like is more than outweighed by the benefit of being able to say anything you want. For me, I’m not sure I’m ready to endorse “being able to say anything you want.” Therefore, my heart is murmuring “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” even if I’m not saying it out loud. I reject terror, but I do not embrace unbridled and unthinking free speech.
But there is hope. On our walk this morning in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, we bumped into the end of the “Gaza Winter Walk,” the seventh such five mile walk in support of Gaza’s children, held in London and other cities. We passed a returning family; husband, wife and a small and pretty little girl. She was holding her pale blue foam hand pointy finger (think football game souvenir) with “Allahu Akbar” printed on it. Our meeting took place right at the Peter Pan Statue, an iconic sculpture of Sir George Frampton, installed here in 1912.
Pointing her foam finger at the bronze, she sweetly said to her parents that “she liked Wendy the best.” Someday maybe all of us will see the wonder in cultures and beliefs that are not our own, with less hatred and violence the result.