Charlie Hebdo and Free Speech

Much of the non-Muslim world is focusing on the fact that the attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were precipitated by the numerous cartoons featuring the Islamic prophet, which, as we all know now, is something that is forbidden by Islam. The commenters then go on to talk about freedom of expression and speech and how these cartoons are covered by those concepts. It’s doubtful many (at least, many non-Muslims) would disagree with that point. Besides being protected, does depicting anyone warrant or justify a response of murder? Does the Koran say that those involved in such actions must be killed? There’s not been much mention of the prescribed punishment for such depictions.

This author is not an expert of the Koran – or the Torah, the Bible or Dianetics. It’s possible that all of the above state very clearly that adherents to the faith are obligated to kill all those who poke fun or insult the founders. One of the Ten Commandments does say something about false idols, though it is vague on the punishment to be exacted should worship occur. There exists the possibility that further readings – or interpretations of readings – would show that violence is the required response. History is full of stories demonstrating that believing in or defending one’s religion results in killing those that don’t agree, so perhaps it is written.

Anytime it is asked if Charlie Hebdo was publishing those cartoons in bad taste or if the publishers bear any responsibility for the outcome immediately bring the cries of “Free press! Freedom of expression!” and while the speech itself is protected, that isn’t the question being asked. Those asking that question are not questioning the right to criticize the actions and beliefs – and the consequences – of Muslim extremists and to do so is certainly within the purview and even responsibility of the press. Charlie Hebdo reports using satire, so the images and words are not outside the scope of how they would report on such things. Using satire to illustrate the absurdity of the actions of the terrorists could inform some who would not otherwise read about these issues. Whether or not it should be done in this manner is what is being asked. Where is that line between journalistic responsibility to inform and using journalism to justify expressing opinion? Who decides?

It’s generally acknowledged that within freedom of expression lies responsibilities. Like Spiderman said (although it could have come from someone else and he was just repeating it. Probably should Google it and see…) “with great power comes great responsibility”. So it’s fair to ask: were they being responsible? (If your knee-jerk reply is to scream ‘freedom of…”, please, refrain.) It’s established that they have the right. But is it the best way, the only way, the right way to get your point across? Many states in America now support the Castle Doctrine and/or the Stand Your Ground law. In the first, you have the right to defend your home against intruders pretty much as you see fit. (In California, the force used to defend must be equal to the force used to attack. You can’t shoot someone armed with a dead fish.) In the second, the stipulation that you must avoid conflict when possible has been replaced with a sort of preemptive strike rule. If someone is going to attack you – or you have good reason to believe they will – you can defend yourself. (The only problem is that since they’ve not attacked, you’re not certain what they were – if they were – going to attack with. So you shoot the guy who was going to cuss you out. Or, if you’re poor at interpreting body language, point that your shoe was untied.)

That brings up the first question: Just because you have the right or freedom to do something – does that mean you should do it? Should you shoot the noise in the garage because you’re allowed to defend your castle? Should you ‘stand your ground’ and pop a cap in the old guy in the hat standing next to you cause you took his spot in line and he doesn’t look pleased about it? Should you put cartoons on your magazine cover to show your contempt or anger or frustration with members of a group? And should you do it again the week after the previous artists were gunned down for doing it before? (The “Should you” question doesn’t have to be philosophical. It could be existential.)

The next question is not as universal in scope – America is one of the few FWC exempt from this question, since it does not have the restrictions. Charlie Hebdo has attacked Catholics and Christianity, lambasting them for the pedophile scandals and their stand on gay marriage. They have, quite obviously, attacked Islam for a number of things. It seems all are fair game. Except one. Anti-Semitic speech is forbidden in France and much of Europe. Not all speech about Jews is forbidden, the press can comment favorably. Charlie has done covers with Jews on them, even in a negative light. The fact remains though that Jews are specifically protected from the ‘rights’ of free speech.

So, question two would be: Does France have free speech? If the answer is no, then perhaps all those claiming they are defending free speech and freedom of expression need to rethink what they are defending.

The last question applies not to the events in France but rather the concept of free speech. Universally, there are some restrictions on the concept: one can’t yell ‘fire’ in a theater and expect to use the freedom of expression defense in a court of law. That’s the concept of responsible free speech and while philosophers and anarchists may argue that point, most accept it. The fact is that there exists – sometimes codified in law, sometimes in being polite, most often embodied in the concept of political correctness – restraints on what one can say. Given these two restrictions, what is ‘free speech’? What is it those defending it are defending?

These questions are important for several reasons. The first and third questions are universal – can we say anything we want and have no responsibility for the outcome? We know the answer – no. The second is more specific, but not really if we accept the answer afforded to the two other queries.

If there are restrictions and responsibilities attached to free speech, what exactly are the French marching around about?

The opinions expressed by Charlie seem to be less an expression of free speech or an attempt to inform than they are attacks on Islam hiding behind the concepts. Ones that, expressed more honestly, wouldn’t be tolerated by the PC restrictions normally put on speech. The same reporting, if it featured Jews, might not just fall afoul of PC restrictions but legal ones as well.

Embedded In America defends no religious group but it does defend the rights of all of them to exist and express their beliefs. EIA supports free speech and acknowledges the responsibilities inherent in such freedoms. The authors do feel that in this set of events, specifically the opinions of Charlie and the responses of the Muslim extremists, there exists a fair amount of…bullshit. On top of that, some of those yelling about ‘free speech’ are those who belong to a group protected against such speech – which is also bullshit.

Abstraction from truth and real motives and using defenses created for completely different scenarios are the real problems here. The extremists know the cartoons are no justification for killing but it gives a defense to acts that have no defense. The cartoonists and publishers hide behind freedoms created to ensure truth can be printed, even or especially uncomfortable truths and then cry foul when the responsibility part of the freedom comes calling. The people hide behind claims of the same freedoms when everyone – the publishers, the bloodthirsty killers and the public themselves know what is really going on. PC ensures this little dance keeps happening.

What good is free speech if no one speaks honestly?


~ by Mad Prophet on January 15, 2015.

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