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.