Monday, 12 January 2015

Freedom of speech, respect and Charlie Hebdo

Voltaire is famously quoted as saying "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The fact that these words were only attributed to him by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall takes nothing away from the sentiment which most people would generally support. And yet we have to acknowledge at least three objections.

To begin with even Western Countries do not grant freedom of speech to everyone on all topics. Many countries, for example, have made it an offence to publicly deny the Holocaust in the Second World War. Once there is even a single example where freedom of speech is proscribed we cannot pretend it is a universal human right.

The second thing is that just because someone has the legal freedom to say something does not mean that they can necessarily say it with impunity. That is such a truism that it hardly needs to be said. We criticize public statements all the time. Many times our objections might be factual corrections but it is perfectly acceptable to object because you simply do not like what is being said. Where things begin to become problematic is when a government or another powerful body has such power that it can punish someone saying something it does not want to published abroad. By "punish" I do not mean legally punish through a successful libel prosecution; I mean an extra-legal punishment such as ostracizing the offender to the detriment of their career, threats to use the draconian UK libel laws which are ruinously expensive to defend against, or maybe being harassed by an organization such as the FBI for being a whistle-blower.

And the third thing is that just because someone has legal freedom to say something does not mean that they actually should say it. For example, if you are the head of an organization speaking on its behalf you should stick to the things that are relevant, and not scatter gratuitous insults:- that's impolite, irrelevant, and distracting.

All of these issues come very much to mind in the aftermath of the attack on the offices and staff of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris. The attackers, enraged by a series of cartoons that poked fun at Islam, murdered 11 journalists. Publicly, almost universal condemnation has followed from both Moslems and non-Moslems (this despite the predicable Fox News claim - refuted by Katie Halper that Moslems were generally silent on the issue). However, while the general tenor of the coverage has insisted that no reining in of Free Speech should occur, it has been interesting that most of the British Press have chosen not to print any of the cartoons that provoked the attacks. This decision was defended in a recent Guardian article and the main defence given was that, in the normal run of events, such cartoons would not normally be published in the Guardian and, despite a natural reaction to show solidarity with their Charlie Hebdo colleagues by publishing cartoons, it was better to fight intolerance with tolerance. I believe this is an honorable stance but I can't imagine that it applied to the gutter press who also didn't reprint any cartoons. One is therefore left wondering whether intimidation played any part in the collective decision.

Finally, it is worth commenting on a point that is obviously very important to many Moslems: should the cartoons have been published by Charlie Hebdo itself? Don't the arguments of good taste (which seemed to apply to the Guardian) apply universally? I think not for the following reason.  Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine and its whole purpose is to provoke thought despite it provoking controversy; that is what satire is all about. So I would argue that by publishing offensive cartoons they were simply carrying out their remit - and that remit cannot be confined to safe targets only. Down the ages satirists have always risked their freedom, livelihoods and lives. We applaud the forerunners of Charlie Hebdo and we should applaud such heroes today.

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