Free Speech and the Right to Insult

Posted: 9 January 2015

pen-terror-memorial-mn-Charlie-HebdoLiberté, Égalité, Fraternité – Freedom, Equality, Fraternity. In the attack upon the satirical Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo, which left ten staff and two police officers dead, it is evident that the somewhat noble motto of the republic of France was utterly disgraced. Disgraced by the gunmen who ended those lives, and disgraced by the magazine staff who used their talents to publish a weekly journal of ridicule and mockery.

Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to controversy. The magazine began in 1960 as Hara-Kiri and soon took on the slogan ‘mean and nasty’ which came directly from an early reader’s complaint letter. The magazine was temporarily banned by the French government in 1961 and 1966. In 1970 the magazine was banned again for mocking the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle, but this time it took on a new name to save itself – Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly). Charlie Hedbo has a relatively low weekly circulation, but is well known for its provocative cartoons, and it was five of those cartoonists who were executed in the killings.

The magazine is extremely left-wing in its opinion and completely anti-institution. It mocks politicians, culture, and authority figures but it has found a special passion for mocking religion – particularly Christianity and Islam. Their cartoons have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms. They drew the Prophet Muhammad in pornographic poses and saw fit to refer to Muslims as “jerks”. Over the years they have had a range of lawsuits filed against them. In 2011 they created a specifically provocative edition about the Prophet Mohammed and their offices were subsequently firebombed. In 2012 they were asked by the French Police to remain silent while a film against Islam instigated worldwide riots; Charlie Hedbo decided to publish inflammatory cartoons anyway. Last Christmas, Charlie Hedbo created an edition featuring a cartoon of the Virgin Mary, legs wide open, giving birth to Jesus. The editor Stephane Charbonnier, who was also killed in the attack, once stated that his magazine would continue its style “until Islam is just as banal as Catholicism.”

In the wake of the attack the tone from governments around the world has been the expected solidarity and restatement of the value of free speech. What seems less forthcoming though is the observation that the right to free speech comes with the responsibility of some consideration for others. It is a fairly simple example, but if a school child repeatedly taunts another child with insult after insult, eventually it can be expected that the child bearing those insults will snap and retaliate; it doesn’t make the retaliation right but who is truly to blame? For many people, an insult to faith is far greater than an insult made about their own mother. Emotional and spiritual hurts are real and might be felt more deeply than the pain of a physical attack, it is a point that the common secularist often fails to grasp.

As a response to the shootings thousands of people flocked together in Paris and cities across Europe to pay tribute to the victims. In an apparent show of solidarity many held up pens or placards reading ‘I am Charlie’. While I appreciate their gesture I am very proud to affirm here and now that, ‘I am not Charlie’. I do not believe that it is a virtue to mock and belittle the beliefs of others. I do not believe it is a virtue to quash the good name of others. I do not believe we have a right to spread gossip and scandal. Publications like Charlie Hedbo do not make the world a richer place, they cause division and hurt amongst people. They do violence to the hearts and feelings of others.

It is tragic that the editor and staff of Charlie Hebdo were killed, I am truly sorry for their loved ones. I am sorry that those who killed them thought that hatred and murder would avenge their anger. However, using my own right to freedom of speech I can state my belief that those workers at Charlie Hebdo are not innocent heroes. They chose to dedicate their lives to mockery. They used their pen as a sword to execute the beliefs of not just Muslims, but Christians, Jews and an array of other figures. Yes, it was those gunmen who fired the physical weapons, and there is no excuse for murder, but in the strangest and saddest twist of fate, it was those very pens that really took the lives of the twelve people in Paris.

  • Larry

    What I find interesting is the continued obscurity of the non-fundamentalist imans or key / prominent Muslims leaders. It wasn’t long before we even saw the Pope praying for BOTH the victims AND the perpetrators. Yet except for some regular Muslim contributors to the news programs, no prominent Muslim leaders decrying the event. Where are they?
    2015JA09 19:40

  • I think that would go a long way to helping the situation.

  • Priest

    A few thoughts:
    1. Your analogy of the child in the playground is instructive – I would suggest that part of the issue here is that we want our society to be deal with “insults and mockery” in a mature way. Even children who react physically to emotional insults are disciplined, and taught to react in a more “mature” way. All the more so with adults, co-existing in our pluralistic society. There are mature ways to respond to free speech poorly exercised – they include rational debate, lawsuits if slander or libel are involved, or simply not reading certain publications.
    2. You ask “who is truly to blame…”; and you suggest “…it was those very pens that really took the lives of the twelve people in Paris.” I strongly disagree with these statements, and consider them somewhat offensive and quite surprising coming from your pen. They are the sort of statements I would expect to read from a fundamentalist Islamist apologist. It was the murderous actions of Islamic fundamentalists that were to blame. Fullstop. Let us place the blame squarely where it lies here, without compromise or qualification.
    3. The bottom line: I do not agree with much or perhaps any of the content of “Charlie Hebdo”. But do we want certain people to have the power to be able to decide what is “permissible” to publish, as opposed to that which is unduly “offensive or insulting”? Be careful what you wish for. For instance: there are influential people in our society who consider it “offensive and insulting” for anyone to publicly oppose abortion, or same-sex marriage. I am Charlie – only insofar as I will always exercise my right to speak my opinions in public, no matter who may consider my opinions to be “offensive or insulting”.

    • Jan

      Priest, very well said. And can I add that this publication has only ever had a marginal circulation, no doubt because individuals have also sensibly exercised their choice not to read what is offensive to them. There is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for the actions of the Islamists who perpetrated this revengeful and hatefilled crime.

      • Dear Jan, I am not sure what you mean by this publication (and it’s not really a publication, it’s a simple fortnightly column), only having a marginal circulation, it has the circulation that I wish it to have. As I replied to priest, I have not condoned the actions of those who fired the bullets. I suggest you read some of my other columns about the importance of concepts such as love shown to all and truth etc.

        PS If you find this ‘publication’ so offensive I am surprised you take the time to read it or write in response. But that being said, you are most welcome.

        • Priest

          I think a misunderstanding may have occurred here – on my reading, Jan was referring to the publication “Charlie Hebdo”, not “Foolish Wisdom”.

      • Priest

        Thanks Jan. 🙂

    • I did not say in the article that those from Charlie Hebdo who were killed somehow deserved to be killed. You may have noticed I made the point rather emphatically that I not believe in belittling or insulting others, so if I believe that, is it likely that I would somehow condone murder?

      You speak about the ability we have to speak against abortion and same-sex marriage…you may have already noted that prosecution already occurs in various places of the Western World for doing just that, so we already live with a very one sided version of ‘free speech’ anyway.

      My article is making the fairly obvious point that when you deal in the business of mockery and abuse, it is not outrageous to consider what has happened. That doesn’t make it right and that does not condone those murderous actions.

      • Priest

        Firstly, I would suggest, then, (peacefully, rationally, you’ll notice) that you modify or remove at least the following statements in your article:

        1. “who is truly to blame?”
        2. “…it was those very pens that really took the lives of the twelve people in Paris.”

        Secondly, no I do not consider it AT ALL obvious that dealing in the business of mockery and abuse (verbally) makes what happened ANY LESS OUTRAGEOUS.

        Finally, the fact that we live with a very one sided version of “free speech” doesn’t justify further undermining the “right to offend”. In fact it shows us why you and I should be firmly in favour of defending this right, not further undermining it.

        • I never use free speech to offend, I use it to comment on what is going on in our world. The piece did not condone the acts of those killers in Paris, it made the point (which has incidentally been made by others as well) that one can’t live to offend and expect that life will always go well. That in no way says that anyone deserved to die, nor that the gunmen were somehow in the right. What happened was a tragedy and that it remains. Lastly, and with the greatest of respect, I don’t ‘modify’ or ‘remove’ sections of pieces of have written.

          • Priest

            The statements “who is truly to blame?” and “it was those very pens that really took the lives of the twelve people in Paris” are offensive to me, and to those who have died and their loved ones. They are comments much more suited to Islamist propaganda than a Catholic blog. Even your statement right here in this comment that “one can’t live to offend and expect that life will always go well” sounds so similar to the militant Islamists who have come out saying “now you know there will be consequences for insulting the prophet”. And with respect, why would you never modify or remove pieces you have written? Even the great Ratzinger has modified his positions upon reflection!

          • I’m sorry you find them offensive, that is not the purpose, but sometimes that is the nature of a an opinion piece. Others have been not happy by my columns on issues of sexuality or truth, should I also adjust those. I don’t modify pieces because (a) I am not putting out a draft essay open for advice from the general public (b) they have been published in other places already (c) what is written in this case is mere opinion and does not deal with an issue of faith or morals and (d) as stated I am very sorry for those who died and they did not deserve what happened but I do believe that the decisions they made in regards continuing to mock and insult week after week contributed to what occurred; to say the two are unrelated is simple ignorance. If Charlie Hebdo was in the business of drawing flowers and trees this wouldn’t have happened. Lastly, I do not credit myself anywhere near the importance or intellectual rigor of Ratzinger.

          • :-)

            Thumbs up, Bernard. if you believe in it, fight for it. sometimes, you may even die for it; or eventually get killed. Unfortunately, not so long ago, Christians were even “fed to the lions” for their belief…

          • Priest

            I find it interesting that you have no qualms with exercising your freedom of speech to make comments which are easily (I think necessarily) taken as blaming the victims of terror for their own deaths. I absolutely respect your right to do so – and have exercised my right to debate against your opinions. What I don’t respect is the logic of your arguments. Finally, my point in mentioning the great Ratzinger was that if he in his greatness is humble enough to modify his work, so too should you be – if, that is, you ever consider yourself to err. That will by my last word here, thanks for your time.

          • C.Caruana

            You are preaching the right to offend, yet you complain of being offended by certain statements in the article, and want them to be retracted. Yet again, you defend the right of Charlie Hebdo for continuing to offend unrestrictedly while restricting it in the case of Toutounji because some of his comments offends you. You have to decide whether you want to have your free speech cake or to eat it. Don’t you think it is hypocritical of the liberal establishment that it puts no limits to religious offence yet it is quick to limit and even prosecute anyone who offends its chosen sacred cows like racism, feminism, the gay and gender agenda? You apparantly have lttle or no qualms about censoring and undermininig Mr Toutounji’s ‘right to offend’ you, while in the same breath warning him not to do the undermining. Practise what you preach Priest.

          • Priest

            Sorry C.Caruana, I only saw your reply after posting my last reply below. I did say that would be my last word here but didn’t want to ignore your challenge to me. Thank you for the challenge. I think I answer it in my posts, including my “last word” below, anyway. Namely – the mature response to offensive use of free speech is rational debate, which is what I have been doing. I have then asked Bernard to retract statements which I think are clearly a poor exercise of his freedom of speech (i.e. blaming victims of terror for their own deaths – saying their “pens” brought about their deaths is doing this, no matter how often he says he is not). In a sense, I’m asking him to practise what he preaches. It is then over to Bernard to exercise his freedom, to decide whether to accept my suggestions or not. I would not want anyone to censor him against his will, no matter how offensive his comments may be. So yes, in this case I am practising what I preach (though admittedly not always, so thanks for the reminder). 🙂

            And for the record, as I said in previous posts, I strongly oppose the liberal establishment’s attempts to censor or prosecute people who “offend” – especially those who are simply speaking moral (but unpopular) truths. And this is precisely the extent to which “I am Charlie” – I defend my own right and others’ rights to “offend”, because I do not want to entrust any secular leader with the authority to censor people’s freedom of expression. And if they do try to prosecute me for speaking the truth, I will (I hope) willingly accept whatever “punishments” they can dish out.

  • John Bamford

    All statements about this subject have their value. Christ’s simple statement of what is sometimes referred to as the golden rule is very easy to understand and implement: “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you”. If we’d all take this to heart in our day-to-day dealings with each other the world would soon be a better place I believe.