The other day while idly scrolling through my Facebook news feed I came across a post by a (fortunately not close) English acquaintance of mine reacting with anger to the latest Charlie Hebdo cover and calling for it to be “shut down” on the grounds that offending people’s religion is not free speech. This was a person living in a liberal society openly calling for one of the most fundamental freedoms of that society to be curtailed. While this person lacked the sophistication to cloak this sentiment in euphemism, it is disturbing how widespread these views are.
As the dust has settled over the last few weeks many have, astonishingly, sought to shift the responsibility for preventing future acts of terror, onto the very free press that was attacked. The more enlightened critics suggest that, while Charlie Hebdo undoubtedly had the ‘right’ to publish offensive material, it was ‘unkind’ to do so and alienates peaceable Muslims who we need to keep on the side of pluralism and democracy. I fear this gives ordinary Muslims far too little credit. The implication is that Muslims, however moderate, are all potential terrorists teetering on the brink of extremism, ready to be pushed over the edge if their feelings are hurt too much. We do not treat Catholics or Hindus, who take their religion just as seriously, this way so I see no reason why an exception should be made in this case. I have a Christian friend who was offended by Charlie Hebdo’s homoerotic portrayal of the Holy Trinity but this offence led to nothing more than him expressing it during a conversation about the content of the publication, it did not shake his faith nor inspire him to rail against free speech, though I doubt he will be buying a subscription. Muslims who are strong and committed in their faith have no justifiable reason to turn against the societies they live in on the basis of the free press exercising their right to criticise, and their responsibility to print newsworthy stories and images.
But perhaps I am being an idealist. It is possible to make a consequentialist argument here: that while Muslims should ideally not be pushed towards extremism by having their religion mocked, it happens anyway so doing so, whether we like it or not, is essentially stirring up trouble and not conducive to living in a peaceable pluralistic society.
But the state of affairs this results in is not pluralism, it is in fact totally counter-productive to that project. It is the decision to self-censor, based on the fear of an apparently hypersensitive and volatile minority. It seems obvious that this sentiment, once again, insults ordinary Muslims, infantilising them by assuming their inability to weather offence non-violently. We are told time and time again that it is intolerant and bigoted to question the loyalty of Muslims in Western society, to expect them to make their position clear that they do not condone such acts of terror is to suspiciously implicate them based on their faith, to assume guilt until innocence is demonstrated. I happen to agree but the corollary must be that we do not make contingency concessions just in case that trust is misplaced.
But, even more dangerously, it also empowers the extremists by appointing them the representatives of the community and the arbiters of the (now-no-longer-free) press. It sets a dangerous precedent that we are ready and willing to retreat on our principles and that violence and intimidation are a valid means of affecting policy-change. We had a taste of this during the debacle over the Danish cartoons when a number of publications and media outlets refused to reprint what was by then a highly newsworthy image for fear that they would be “inciting violence” (exact words) – taking responsibility in advance for acts of violence against themselves, an extraordinary victory for the habitual offence-seekers who will always find something to be angry about.
But what is so noble about the actions of Charlie Hebdo and the publications that republished their cartoons? Do they not play into the hands of rising right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere? What about the hypocrisy of the politicians marching in solidarity with the principle of “free speech” when they do not apply the principle consistently in their own societies? All these non-sequiturs have been thrown around in the last few weeks with the sinister effect that the term “free speech” is increasingly written in those tell-tale inverted commas. You’ve seen them before. The ones we use to imply the condescending eye-rolling sarcasm we reserve for political hypocrisy or embarrassing jingoism, for terms like “war on terror” and “freedom fries”.
Are politicians hypocrites? Very often, yes. Will the far-right try and take advantage of recent events? Like any political movement, of course they will. But these are arguments of babies and bathwater. The answer to these problems is not to abandon free speech to the dustbin of rhetorical clutter.
Back in 2012, during a debate on the motion “Free Speech must include the right to offend” the American journalist and author, Philip Gourevitch, speaking for the motion, expressed the challenge we now face rather well:
“It is not a slippery slope; it is a greased precipice off which they wish to push you”
Featured Image Credit: The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David. Source: WikiCommons