Not Sure If Je Suis Completely Charlie

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Beyond a condemnation of the contemptuous Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, there is little else to be said of the act itself. It was barbaric, it was awful, and it is terrifying. But there is an important dialogue that has been born out of these atrocities, and it is a dialogue which goes to the root of our human rights. How far reaching is our right to free speech and expression, enshrined in law under article 10 ECHR? How free is our free speech at all? How free do we really want our expression to be? I have been having a back and forth with myself for the last few days on exactly this question, and because there are always at least two sides to every story, and for the sake of my own uncertainty on the matter, I thought I would detail some of the more pertinent aspects of my cerebral soliloquy in writing.

I wonder if, in our well-intended quest for political correctness, we made Charlie Hebdo a target. If so few magazines and satirical periodicals are willing to publish something that might offend, we leave those willing to do so out on a limb. And that limb has a target drawn onto it by those of such extreme predispositions who are willing to kill because they’ve been belittled by it. It’s an unnerving thought, but if we inclined ourselves towards offending more people more of the time it would become the mainstream, and when it is the mainstream there is no obvious target. What I am not doing here is proposing that everyone jumps on board with a persistent provocation of Islamic indignation, but I am speaking generally about the idea of causing offence. If we all cause offence to everyone to an invariably large extent, there is no target for extremists of any conviction or persuasion to attack. I can’t think any enemy we might face would have sufficient force to target us all – but then again I could be wrong and that’s a really scary thought.

Or instead of creating a culture in which we offend and provoke each other, why don’t we look to the current state of the freedom of speech for which we now fight so vehemently? There is certainly an argument to suggest that we already impose a self-censorship on that freedom. There would be public outcry if a cartoonist published a picture taunting black people, or belittling feminism or gays or any other historically downtrodden social sects, because it just isn’t accepted. Yet now we fight tooth and nail for the right to mock the prophet of Islam. It seems strange that we impose restrictions on ourselves and then, once that restriction has been infringed, we fight for our right to infringe it, and I don’t think I am setting up a straw man when I make that point.

I suppose that the previous argument hints at questioning what belittling /mocking/offending anyone really achieves and why we feel we should fight for out right to belittle/mock/offend. Simply put, there can be nothing that shouts louder for liberty than publishing something that puts you directly at risk of murder, but it isn’t pure freedom if we are only fighting for the right to offend Muslims and everything else seems to be off limits. For me, if I’m Charlie, I also need to be ready to offend the gays and the blacks and the Jews and anyone that has a different ideology to me, and I find that difficult. I don’t want that to be ok. And so I find myself in this position where I have utter conviction in the defense of free speech but struggle with the idea that that then translates into it being ok to offend everyone.

But that’s probably the point, right? It’s freedom to speak or offend, and freedom to dislike that speech or offence. I have difficulties with that though, because taken to its logical extreme, freedom of speech has the scope to be a poisonous concept, justifying saying anything to anyone about anything without having to worry about anyone else’s reaction because they are free to disagree, and free to be offended. I don’t want to live in a world in which someone can turn around and insult me on a whim because they’re free to do so, nor do I want to live in a world where that person cannot insult me because they haven’t been afforded the requisite rights to do so.

And so I find myself in this state of confusion: I want nothing more than to protect free speech, and not to cave under the pressure of the savagely cruel, primitively unsophisticated reaction to that freedom that we saw in the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But I am at odds with the idea of a society that offends because it can, and, what’s more a society whose willingness to offend doesn’t seem to go as far as it could or should. It seems that if we’re going to offend, we need to be offending everyone and that isn’t a desirable social situation. Then again, I don’t know if that is less desirable than a society in which nobody can offend at all.

In short though, Je suis Charlie, of course I am, it was a heinous series of events. My problem is that if that means an unabated freedom of speech, I can’t get to grips with quite how Charlie I am.

For more posts like this, check out by GDL Student, Samuel Cuthbert.


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