Archive - January 9, 2015

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Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo
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Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo

The attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week generated a groundswell of support for the right to free speech. The attacks, supposedly perpetrated by two French brothers of Algerian descent, resulted in the deaths of 12 individuals working at the magazine, including four cartoonists and the editor. Recent cartoons in the magazine ridiculed the leader of the ‘Islamic State’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the past, the magazine had been targeted for cartoons mocking Mohammed as well.

After the magazine posted on its site the simple phrase, ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ it quickly became one of the key trending terms on Twitter. It echoes the famous decision of Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, to headline its story on the September 11 attacks with the phrase ‘Nous sommes Americains’, or We are all Americans. Both these statements represent moments of solidarity in response to horrific acts of violence.
But, unsurprisingly, such acts of solidarity are not so simple. Soon after the term began to appear, debates swirled on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere about whether or not we should adopt this phrase. Some responded by cautioning about embracing free speech so simplistically, pointing out that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons are quite offensive (and they are not only limited to insults to Islam, but other religious and political beliefs as well). Others argued that we should not only be upset by the deaths of French journalists, but the hundreds of thousands killed in conflicts in the Middle East brought on by the actions of Western powers such as France. Still others have argued that the problems Europeans (and North Americans) have integrating Muslims as immigrants and citizens are behind such attacks.

What I find interesting about this debate is the underlying assumption of the Je Suis Charlie Hebdo response. The assumption is that we should all be the same or all accept the same beliefs concerning free speech, religious belief, or political life. I wholeheartedly condemn the attacks and think those responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law. But, I’m not so sure I want to be Charlie Hebdo and adopt their particular expression of free speech. And, as a student of the Middle East for many years, I’m concerned at the demonization of Muslims and Islam that have been taking place in Europe in recent years and that seem to underlie some of the responses emerging from this attack.

But I do believe strongly in the liberal right to free speech. So, instead of declaring myself to be Charlie Hebdo, I suggest turning to one of the most important defences of liberty ever written – John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Written in 1859 by the English philosopher, the text provides a defence of liberty, particularly freedom of speech, as a good for society. But Mill does not defend liberty because it will make us all the same. Rather, he defends liberty because it creates a space in which ideas can be aired, examined and debated. Like the famous Speakers Corner in Hyde Park London, Mill envisions a public space in which individuals can make their case and must defend it before others. The brilliance of his argument is that he believes free speech is not just about giving individuals the right to speak but, even more importantly, it will make society a better place.
Of course, the global political space is not like Speakers Corner. Power differentials, historical injustices, and access to wealth and technology give some a louder voice than others. But, this does not undermine Mill’s basic point. The best defence of free speech is one that recognizes how radically different we are, but encourages us to listen to each other. We can disagree, and indeed, we should. But without listening to each other, we won’t know what to disagree about.

Once more, I condemn those who have undertaken this attack; indeed, they violated Mill’s ideas even more, as they sought to prevent discussion and debate about ideas with the least political tool of all, violence. At the same time, I don’t want to be Charlie Hebdo. I want to see satirical cartoonists, listen to believers in an Islamic state, and hear as many other opinions as possible. To hear them all will allow me to think differently about myself and the world around me – and it will, hopefully, make the world a better place, filled with diversity and difference rather than unity and similarity.

Sommes-nous Charlie Hebdo?

It may be narcissistic, and in poor taste, to talk so soon about how the Charlie Hebdo massacre relates to the rest of us. But of course American pundits are doing it anyway, and I’ll join the fray long enough to note four things.

First, although freedom of speech and of the press have been in the U.S. Constitution since the beginning, and were adopted in European countries at various times, religious blasphemy has not always been protected speech in the West. It is only in recent decades, as our societal elites have become more skeptical of religion, that courts have come to protect speech that ridicules religion.

Second, it took many people in the West a long time to make peace with the right to lampoon religion. Here is a fascinating video clip from 1979 of some of my favorite Englishmen – Malcolm Muggeridge, John Cleese, and Michael Palin – arguing vehemently over the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, whose final scene is taken by many (me included) to be ridiculing Christ’s crucifixion.

Third, one can agree with Muggeridge, who was a fearless journalist, and the Bishop of Southwark in the video that the Monty Python film is blasphemous and ought not to have had the crucifixion scene, and at the same time maintain that Monty Python must be allowed to make and distribute that film without fear of state prosecution or private violence. The same goes for Charlie Hebdo and the lampooning of Muhammad. We have arrived at a point in Western culture where almost nothing is sacred, and maintaining our constitutional freedoms requires that we not carve out exceptions for blasphemy.  We must not flinch.

Fourth, as David Brooks notes in a brilliant column today, this goes for campus speech codes as well.  As we have de-sacralized religion, we have sacralized the tender feelings of students, and censorship is rife on campuses.  The horrific events in France and our reactions to them expose our silliness and incoherence.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.