Charlie Hebdo: free speech?

9 Jan

Yesterday our resident teen asked us to guess top trend on Twitter. We got it: # je suis charlie hebdo. Fourth was # kill all muslims

Just park that a moment. I’ll come back to it. Later, on Newsnight, we saw a man – context and facial features suggesting Algeria – saying, plausibly and in moderate tones, that Hebdo’s activities are akin to “coming to my house and spitting on the doorstep”. Why, he asked, would anyone do that?

This is specious. Spitting is an act of physical violence. Lampooning ideas – from the big man in the sky, jealous and given to temper tantrums, to fairies at foot of the garden – is not. You don’t have to agree with Charlie Hebdo to value its contribution, the more so as mainstream media across the world quietly downplay hard won principles of secularism and free speech; self censoring on Islam in the face of threats rather more serious and credible than a visit by doorstep expectorators.

My post of two days ago on political correctness was sent less than an hour before I learned of the Paris murders. It’s pure fluke that a distinction I drew – uncritical defence of Islam on the one hand, unconditional defence of muslims on the other – is now highly relevant. As editorial boards consider the implications for their content, and Muslims brace themselves for thuggery, I say the right to free speech, including the right to offend, is non negotiable. The right of our Muslim communities to protection from thuggery is also non negotiable. 


Follow-up, January 10 – is my distinction between spitting on someone (or even their doorstep) and satirising their faith itself specious, superficially plausible but not holding up to scrutiny? A few friends think so, and we may be unable to resolve our difference since it is in all likelihood axiomatic. They fear my separation of word and deed reifies a line drawn in the mind. I fear a slippery slope.

We have a tradition of vicious lampoon dating to the Enlightenment. Read Swift. See Cruikshank. Vitriolic stuff, and we can be sure many of their contemporaries took offence. France has an even stronger tradition, given backbone by La Revolution, the first element in her trinity of values liberty itself. The right to offend (but not advocate violence) is no arcane debating point but as vital to our freedoms as habeus corpus.

One friend, highly intelligent and committed to a free (and fairer) society, said this. “Publishing such stuff in, say, Iran would have been heroic (if insane). Publishing it in France was just bloody ill mannered.”

I have two problems with that. The first is that the right to be bloody ill mannered does have to be exercised for the very good reason that what we don’t use we lose. I don’t want freedom of speech relegated to an arcane theoretical privilege, like the right to drive sheep over London Bridge. I want to see it in action, even when I detest what’s being said.

My second issue is the implication – which my friend assuredly did not intend – that the victims had to be heroes to deserve our support. Well that’s the bloody point, innit? Had they been heroes it would be presumptuous to tweet je suis charlie hebdo. I consider myself Charlie Hebdo in the sense Pastor Niemoller meant with those timeless words: first they came for the Jews …

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