What is freedom of speech? Workers at Charlie Hebdo paid the price for exercising theirs. As far as freedom of speech goes, does the right to free speech come with the right to say stuff like “I don’t think that people really needs to have its own nation-state” or “let’s kill all the [insert group here]”? Is the right to offend an inherent part of the right to free speech? Where is the line between causing offence and hate speech?
To be clear, where freedom of speech is defined in law in so-called modern liberal democracies, that freedom is not absolute. The traditional claim is that it doesn’t include the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre hall. And it is limited by laws against libel and slander. Many nations also have laws against encouraging terror, “fighting words”, obscenity, hate, distributing state secrets, or discrimination in their free speech laws. Regardless of what people claim, we don’t have absolute free speech; nor should we. We might argue on the degree of free speech, but ultimately, only the worst kind of libertarian-anarchist argues in favour of absolute free speech.
“Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” — Voltaire
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” — Salman Rushdie
“It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?” — Stephen Fry
“No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” — Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen
“I get a bit disturbed when people talk about a right to offend. It’s not a positive thing. The UN declaration talks about freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, not our freedom to offend.” — Henderson Mullin
Just t be clear, I think “let’s kill the xxxx” is expressing hatred, even though the word “hate” is absent. But why is “expressing hatred” (a.k.a. “hate speech”) criminal, yet “expressing offensiveness” okay? What if one kid in the playground says to another, “I hate you!” Is that hate speech or just kids being kids? (The latter, I suspect.) What if the ‘hating’ kid had been bullied by the ‘hated’ kid? What if someone uses the N-word, or any of a myriad other colourful insults the English language has to offer? Is that hate speech, or merely causing offence? Where is the line? That’s not a rhetorical question. Lives (more lives) may depend on it if we as a society don’t have a serious debate about it.
Suppose I say to the notion that expressing hatred is wrong, “you feel hated upon? So fucking what?” One could argue that as long as no one is actually hurt, expressing hatred is okay. It’s certainly what Stephen Fry argued in the context of expressing offensiveness.
When I think about it, expressing offensiveness can be just as hurtful (or hurtless, depending on whether you think words in themselves can hurt at all) as expressing hatred. There’s no functional difference in the emotions created in the person who feels offended and/or hated upon.
Some time ago, the Vatican of all places denounced the Harry Potter novels as offensive. I recall finding that slightly ridiculous at the time. I think the real issue is whether there is intent to cause hatred or offence. In the case of the Harry Potter books, I’d say obviously not. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, given the previous statements from the editors, previous public statements, it seems easy to believe there was an intent to be offensive with the limits of French free speech law (Spectator) (New American Media). I would specifically note that the ‘Mohamed’ character as drawn by Charlie Hebdo wears a piece of headgear that bears no resemblance to any real-life headgear worn in the Middle East, but bears a remarkable resemblance to a pair of testicles, an imagery made even more striking given the character’s elongated head. Alongside the stereotypically racist hooknose image of a Middle Easterner (which would be proclaimed as obviously offensive if an equivalent Jewish caricature were drawn), the character is inherently offensive, even ignoring the debate within Islam over whether their prophet should be drawn at all.
With the exception of the worst kind of libertarian-anarchist, we all agree that free speech should have limits (and in every legal system that discusses free speech at all, it always has). The problem is where to draw the line. Wilful intent is ideally the place to mark out, but it’s just not possible to see inside a person’s head to determine intent without a doubt. And looking at consequences (did the other person feel offended and/or hated upon) is much too subjective to be useful, as witnessed by the Vatican saying HP was hate speech against the church.
On the topic of what is satire, free speech, offensive, or hate speech. Here’s another one. Charlie Hebdo did a cover showing a Muslim being shot through a Koran, with a caption stating their holy book is no good because it doesn’t stop bullets. Protected satire and free speech, apparently. I recently came across a parody version showing a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist being shot through a Charlie Hebdo issue with a similar caption. At least one person who shared that piece of satire was later arrested for supporting terrorism (Loonwatch). Now imagine it had been a drawing of a Jewish man being shot through their holy book with a similar caption. Does anyone doubt that would have been considered hate speech and anti-Semitism of the worst kind?
We need to enforce these things objectively, or at least consistently, or else acknowledge our own biases.
My biggest problem with the “Je suis Charlie” reaction is that it doesn’t help in the struggle against terrorism. Few people do anything out of one and only one motivation — not even terrorists. While the terrorists may well have had “they insulted our prophet” as a publicly-stated motivation, part of their goal was undoubtedly to recruit more moderate Muslims to their cause. In that regard, “Je suis Charlie” works wonderfully for them. An entire continent of people marching in support of a comic that insults their religion? Moderates are going to be thinking “what have we got to lose?” especially in light of Saudi Arabia denouncing all atheists (me included) as terrorists (Independent) (American Humanist).
Douglas Murray from The Spectator says he doesn’t want to live under Islamic blasphemy law (Spectator). Well, fair enough. I don’t want to live under Islamic (or any other) blasphemy. What I do want to live under is secular “play nice with each other” law. I am entirely unsurprised to fight various Muslim voices declaiming CH as racist. Olivier Cyran, a former writer for the magazine, says that whatever it was at the time he worked there, it has become racist in the years since (Leninology). Maybe that’s just bitterness at no longer being employed there though. I’ve tried hard to find some objective statistics to determine how much content attacks Islam, Judaism, Christianity, the French far right, the EU, other countries, and various other targets. Sadly, while I found plenty in every category, I couldn’t find any actual studies to prove or disprove their claim that it is an equal-opportunity offender or M. Cyran’s claim that it focuses more on Islam than on other targets.
Neither form of extremism is acceptable. Murders offend me. Those cartoons offend me. And while cartoons are certainly less extreme than murders, that still doesn’t mean they are an acceptable form of extremism. Had Charlie Hebdo’s satire been against extremism, I’d have been okay with that. But satirising a whole religion for the views of the extremists within that religion? Not cool.
But the point is, Charlie Hebdo is offensive. As an atheist and a humanist, it offends me, because in the name of secularism it breaks the golden rule: “play nice with each other”. Who am I to criticise religions for not keeping their houses in order if, as an atheist, I refuse to do the same in mine?
And Stephen Fry can make of that what he will.