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Charlie Hebdo, freedom of expression and a thought from GK Chesterton

Sunday, January 25, 2015

In the context of Charlie Hebdo, a very interesting article by George Weigel on Europe and Nihilism has prompted me to reflect upon freedom of speech in light of the conundrum Weigel sets out: that of trying to stand for something when your basic position is to be against everything.

I’ve never been a subscriber to Charlie Hebdo and I’ve never held a copy in my hands, but I have seen plenty of its cartoons and I have read interviews with its journalists and it seems to me that the magazine delights in desecrating that which people hold sacred, and not always for the aim of exposing some truth that points out a flaw or some hypocrisy in the thing held sacred. Rather too often the point just seems to be to create offence for no other good purpose. I get what Private Eye is trying to do, its cartoons and sketches try to shed the veil, somehow get beneath the major headlines and increase our understanding through humour. Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, often seems to seek to portray the story in the most crass and offensive way possible. The main purpose seems to be to shock; they don’t seem to shock for the sake of something. Elsewhere you can find cogent arguments for why we might be under an obligation to mock religions, but although I disagree with the general thrust of the argument, it’s at least mocking for the sake of some higher principle.

Perhaps though the retort of the Charlie Hebdo writers and fans to my argument thus far would be: “No,  we are for something; we are for freedom of speech.” Well, that too is empty, unless it’s for the sake of something. I would ask “freedom of speech, for what . . . for the sake of expressing some truth . . . inspiring others to some good . . . exposing hypocrisy?” These all seem to me justifiable reasons for causing offence, but offence should not be the end, only ever the means. In addition, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that in making a broader point we should seek to limit the offence we cause, and when can a pornographic cartoon be the only way of making your point? However, if your most cherished value finds its standard form of expression in the deliberate mocking and causing of offence to others, not in the service of some more fundamental truth, because in fact you don’t believe in any fundamental truths, then ultimately what’s the point?

Related to this I was very sad to read the following from Charlie Hebdo after the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris pealed out its bells in memory and in solidarity with the victims of the deplorable terrorist slaughter:

“What made us laugh the most is that the bells of Notre Dame rang in our honour,” the editorial stated. “We would like to send a message to Pope Francis, who, too, was ‘Charlie’ this week: we only accept the bells of Notre Dame ringing in our honour when it is Femen who make them tinkle.”

If an expression of solidarity and compassion with fellow human beings after a tragic event at a time of national mourning can only be responded to with mockery and scorn, then what hope is there of any genuine fraternity being established? In fact fraternity seems to be forgotten value of liberty, equality and fraternity in the French Republic. Whilst there has been a huge march expressing solidarity for the victims and marking, quite properly, a strong stance against terrorism, what there has not really been is any reflection on why mockery of Mohamed is not congruent with fraternity. The grotesque cartoons (I have personally been disgusted by those aimed at Catholics and sympathetic to Muslim sensibilities at gross depictions of Mohamed) take a liberty at the expense of fraternity, and those most likely to be offended are often those least likely to feel any sense of equality in the society in which they live. Muslims are, in the main, in the lower socio-economic groups in France and the editors of Charlie Hebdo represent the white and wealthy establishment. What to one group is an exercise of freedom of speech can quite easily be perceived as bullying by another. You’re poor, you’re under-represented, and then somebody is deliberately offensive about that which you hold most dear. The reaction from those violent and senseless terrorists was grossly disproportionate, utterly inexcusable and rightly roundly condemned, but the fact that there has been a reaction to this continual baiting in the magazine should not really come as a surprise. I am no apologist for Islamism and I believe there is an urgent necessity for full and frank critique of radical expressions of Islam and their relation to Islam in general, but this is going to require engagement with Muslims and the actions of Charlie Hebdo are likely to alienate even the moderates. Freedom of expression needs to be used to start a conversation whereas right now it is just being used to hurl insults, and those insulted don’t really even have the for a right of reply in the public forum and thus frustrations get vented in ever more desperate ways. This does not excuse gratuitous violence; it is merely to acknowledge the reality of how these things play out.

We need then to examine on what basis there be a genuine solidarity between all humanity. Certainly, one sure way to diminish fraternity is to deliberately upset and antagonise people, particularly those who are the poorest. I shall go on to look at some answers below which seem to be discernible to us by use of reason alone, but I want first to look at the exercise of freedom of expression a little further. Whenever we have a right we normally have a responsibility too, and our free speech is no exception: it needs to be used responsibly.

Those associated with Charlie Hebdo fail to do this, in my opinion. They in no way merited or can in anyway have any culpability for the crazed actions of those who killed them, but they did know that there were risks in publishing what they did. There was a certain bravery or  foolhardiness, depending on your view point, in the magazine's continually taking cheap shots at Muslims (and not just Christians as most Western publications tend to), when they knew the likelihood of violent reactions - at least one member of staff already had required police protection – and would have been fully aware of the violent protests against the Danish cartoons of Mohamed back in 2006 which are estimated to have resulted in around 200 deaths in numerous different parts of the world.

Thus after the most recent terrorist slaughter in the name of Islam, with palpable tension between Muslims and other communities in France, and with Christians being blamed in some parts of the Islamic world (where there is naive assumption that all non-Muslims in the West are Christians), there was obviously going to be a huge amount of focus on the next front cover. Yes, it was good that the magazine was uncowed by violence and its threat, but with their enormous police protection and surveillance, they had a comparative safety which others did not have when they published a further inflammatory  depiction of Mohamed. The all too predictable (whilst still utterly unjustifiable) violence ensued with, in Niger alone, at least 10 dead and  45 churches torched in revenge attacks. The writers of Charlie Hebdo are not responsible for these atrocities, but I don’t think it can be said that they have used their freedom of speech responsibly in this instance. If you from a distance knowingly send my neighbour into a rage, knowing that he’ll likely lash out at me, I have a right to feel aggrieved. I suspect that the families of those killed in Niger are wishing a little restraint had been shown and that somebody had thought of their freedom to live.  The triumphal exercise of free speech probably rings a little hollow with those families. Whatever problems there are with certain interpretations of Islam it appears that Charlie Hebdo is exacerbating the problem, not contributing to a solution.

Burnt out remains of a Church in Niger after protests over last week's depiction of Mohamed in Charlie Hebdo

Turning then to what might hold us together, I don’t think that we can form any sort of social cohesion around freedom of speech as the ultimate value. The right to insult one another in as offensive a way as we wish will not build up fraternity. Freedom of speech as a good thing must rest on something else, it is not axiomatic. At this moment in time, in pluralistic Western societies, the need to work out what that something else is has never been more urgent.

We seem, though, to acknowledge implicitly at least a part of what that something more might be in the law which bans “the incitement to ethnic or racial hatred”. Why do we permit this incursion on freedom of speech, the right which we hear spoken of in such privileged terms so often?

I think it’s at least in part because we recognise that to make decisions about the way we treat people entirely on the basis of their race or ethnicity is in fact entirely wrong. So we might conclude that certain truths are so fundamental to society that their perversion should be avoided even at the cost of free speech. Thus it seems that truth is one of those things that we hold as a higher value than freedom of speech. Again, this seems implicit in laws we see elsewhere, such as the criminalisation of holocaust denial in parts of Europe.

The other thing that is being protected by the ban on hate speech is the common good. We rightly consider that hate speech encouraging one race to rise up against another is not a good thing for anyone, neither for those attacked, nor for the perpetrators falsely set against their fellow human beings.

So it seems that at a bare minimum truth and goodness are two things that we consider more important than the exercise of freedom of speech. They seem to me a pretty good start for a civil society. It seems proper that there should be a responsibility on all of us whenever we speak to ensure that we do not corrupt the truth or the common good. Every right that we enjoy brings with it a corresponding duty to use it responsibly. Not out of some child-like fear that otherwise we won’t be allowed to enjoy the right any more but because it goes toward our dignity as human beings to use the exercise of our freedoms with thought and consideration, otherwise we’re not really free, just unthinking. It would be good if some journalists kept this a little closer to heart; there are after all some things more important than circulation figures and the exercise of a right for the sake of it, things like truth, goodness and beauty.

The real value of freedom of speech lies in having something worth saying and not being suppressed in our attempt to say it. Two of the most worthwhile things that there are to be expressed are the truth and love, in fact one should never really be without the other. Truth should always be expressed in love and love always requires that we be truthful.

As a Dominican I belong to an Order which has Veritas – truth – as its motto, and the truth we wish to proclaim is truly beautiful: that God is love and that he so loves the world that he sent his only Son, who, in an ultimate act of love, would lay down his life for us so that we might be freed from the chains of death and sin and share eternal life with him. This is a truth which countless martyrs throughout the years, but never in greater numbers than in the 20th century, have thought worth dying for. It’s a truth that Christians continue to die for and a truth that continues to be illegal or impossible to express in many parts of the world. Millions marched in Paris in support of the right to continue to be able to insult each other, fewer march in solidarity with those who have lost their lives for refusing to change their beliefs. That’s a sad truth which needs to be expressed. But here’s the paradox that lies at heart of the good news of the Christian message: the truth is never more powerful than when it is held by those who are weak; never more triumphant that when its expression is found in self-sacrifice; and never finds its expression in violence.

One salutary last remark. If he is ever canonised, then I am sure GK Chesterton would be made the patron saint of journalists and one quote of his might be particularly for apt for us all, but journalists especially, to bear in mind: “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”

Br Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Br Toby Lees is a deacon based at St Dominic's Priory in London but assigned to the Priory of San Clemente in Rome for reasons of study. He is completing his STB at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas ("Angelicum") in Rome.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org

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