Does #CharlieHebdo offer the rest of us a ‘teachable moment’ on the meaning of free speech?

The terrible events in Paris this week have unleashed, amongst other things, a lot of good journalism, and some pretty decent responses from brother and sister cartoonists. So, here’s a quick round up of some of the best.

– In the US the Je suis Charlie motif has been popular but highly moderated by an essentially liberal reponse to the graphicness of the cartoons themselves. David Brooks in the New York Times for instance…

…this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.

…in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.

If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation. It’s almost always wrong to try to suppress speech, erect speech codes and disinvite speakers.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct. [Emphasis added]

– On Bloggingheads, Robert Wright and Jeet Heer teased out that specific question of moral versus legal restriction on free speech…– George Packer in the New Yorker Magazine was one of the first out of the blocks on the day itself and gives an enduring rationale for the use of the I am Charlie motif…

…the murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.

Charlie Hebdo’s anarchic humour was often deeply unfunny. It’s fierce secularism is of a piece with the French state’s contempt for any authority beyond itself. Personal faith has long since been firmly relegated to the private domain.

The Canadian Heer expounds further on the outworking of that fracture in the Globe and Mail:

in France itself, Islam is the religion of the marginalized, those who, even if they are born in France, are seen by many of their fellow citizens as forever foreign.

Within the context of French radical secularism and anti-clericalism, making fun of Islam is perfectly acceptable and, indeed, morally necessary: Like all religions, Islam is seen as inherently oppressive, and so mockery is liberating. But this type of no-holds-barred irreverence can be blind to its own role in maintaining atavistic prejudices.

Charlie Hebdo’s outputs were occasionally too close to the knuckle even for Charlie Hebdo. “L’affaire Sine” from 2009 shows that freedom of speech has been self-circumscribed.

The UK substantially let go of public censorship in the late 60s when the Lord Chamberlain was stripped of his role in censoring stage plays. The Obscene Publications Act has barely been used over the last fifty years.

But in the west there are many ways in which we deliberately stifle dissent by looking the other way when someone else’s right to free speech are taken from them by violence or, more often, the threat of violence.

Douglas Murray in the Spectator:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali put it best. She suggested in the wake of the Danish cartoons affair that ‘we have to spread the risk.’ But the free press didn’t spread it around then. And I very much doubt that they will now. I know all the arguments. I know the fears – that someone from the typing pool or on the front desk will be the target. I’ve heard every possible argument over the years.

And that is why I can safely say that the free press will fail this latest test too. For all its historic traditions, its self back-slapping for its alleged ‘bravery’ and so on, there are only a couple of tiny outcrops of freedom. The rest of the vast, powerful, fearless, outspoken tradition that is the Western press is too intimidated to publish a single cartoon that might conceivably provoke a Muslim.

This is what it looks like to lose a freedom. Not many people will care today. But they will tomorrow, or another day in the future.

Des Freedman takes almost exactly the opposite view however saying that the big cannons of the media should be pointed resolutely at those in power:

The real reason why the vast majority of the British media has, thus far, chosen not to publish the cartoons is because there is a perception that publication would cause unnecessary harm and fan the flames of a situation that needs calming.

That position may well change following what happened at Charlie Hebdo – it’s possible that some may hold back for fear of reprisals while some may publish and claim that this shows just how brave they are.

A genuinely free media, on the other hand, would devote their resources to reporting on and monitoring power, to thinking about solutions to the problems we face, and to find ways to mark their independence that are not about sensationalism and cheap headlines.

It’s an old English radical point of view clearly shared by Will Self on Channel Four News in debate with a brave (but clearly shaken) Guardian and Slugger Awards cartoonist Martin Rowson:

– Nonetheless, as we know in Northern Ireland, there is also power in guns. And sooner or later when power speaks to power, their victims are sometimes relegated to an inconvenience or forgotten. Jonathan Freedland is one of the few serious UK journalists to consider the subsequent targeting of the Kosher supermarket:

To a certain strain of thinking, one embodied in France by the Jew-baiting so-called comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the best way to attack “the system” or “the establishment” is to wound Jews.

So there’s little surprise the jihadists who turned Paris into a war zone turned their guns sooner rather than later on Jews. That’s what happened in Mumbai in 2008 and again in Toulouse in 2012, when Mohammad Merah killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school, pulling an eight-year-old girl by her hair to shoot her in the head.

Or maybe that is to overthink it. Perhaps we should simply see the perpetrators as the latest in a long line of murderous fascists, defined as such by their choice of targets. They hate dissent, they hate satire and, as fascist tradition demands, they loathe Jews.

Mark Steel leads with a point in satirical fashion, which also Freedland makes forcefully earlier in his piece:

One way in which we’re ensuring we protect those values, is by demanding all Muslims denounce the gunmen. It’s true that every Muslim leader in Britain has denounced them several times, but that’s hardly sufficient. They might denounce them at five past three, and then again at twenty past three, but what are they doing in between? For all we know they’re blowing themselves up at bus garages.

So to truly distance themselves from the shooting, every Muslim should have to draw their own satirical cartoon involving Muhammad trampolining on a pig, so we know we can trust them.

Similarly, when the Norwegian Christian Anders Breivik committed his massacre, all decent people marched straight down to the church and yelled “oy vicar, why haven’t you issued a statement condemning the shooting”? And politicians insisted Special Branch must infiltrate every C of E jumble sale to prevent similar radical movements growing throughout Surrey.

When Newcastle gunman Raoul Moat went crazy, I’m sure I remember interviewers, callers on phone-in shows and website forums insisting it was up to so-called moderate Geordies to denounce these atrocities, and X Factor started that week with Louis Walsh saying he wouldn’t take part unless Cheryl Cole condemned this “foul evil act of pure foul evil, carried out by her own people”.

On the question of whether to mock or not to mock, Stephen Fry for the former

The now forgotten writer, broadcaster and Christian apologist Malcolm Muggeridge destroyed his legacy as a serious and interesting man in fifteen footling minutes on television in which he languidly described Monty Python’s Life of Brian as ‘tenth rate’ … as if that were a reason to stop it being screened. Utterly disingenuous. He wanted to stop it being screened because he was ‘offended’ by its ‘blasphemy’ and so he offered the same non-argument as those advanced by his fellow Festival of Light founder Mary Whitehouse of hilarious memory: “Oh I’m not shocked, oh no. In fact I found it rather boring.” . Of course you did darling, and therefore we must certainly censor it right away. Bah!

And for the latter, Saladin Ahmed

The question for writers and artists, then, is not whether we ought to limit ourselves, but how we already limit ourselves. In a field dominated by privileged voices, it’s not enough to say “Mock everyone!” In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful. And in the context of brutal inequality, it is worth at least asking what preexisting injuries we are adding our insults to.

The belief that satire is a courageous art beholden to no one is intoxicating. But satire might be better served by an honest reckoning of whose voices we hear and don’t hear, of who we mock and who we don’t, and why. [Emphasis added]

– Nick Cohen sees the same issue rather differently and couches the dilemma in more overtly political terms:

European liberals ought to have stopped, as the lash fell on Badawi’s shoulders, and wondered about their queasiness at criticising the religions of the “powerless”and “marginalised”. The Saudi Arabian monarchy is all too powerful, as are the other dictatorships of the Middle East. Power depends on where you stand and who stands below you. The unemployed man with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian journalist. The marginal cleric may have a hard life, but if he sits in a sharia court imposing misogynist rules on British Muslim women he is to be feared.

European liberals might try to be true to their principles and ally with dissidents, liberals, leftists and free thinkers within Muslim communities. They might help ex-Muslims who fear that one day they will be murdered for apostasy. They might reflect that a Muslim man will encounter xenophobia from the right, but they will hear no rigorous criticism at university or other leftist institutions of the sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia and bloodlust of militant religion.

Self-interest ought to be a motivator. Fear of radical Islam is not only driving support for the National Front in France and Ukip here, but providing an excuse for more attacks on civil liberties, including, despite David Cameron’s pious words after Charlie Hebdo, attacks on freedom of speech.

I hope I am wrong, but I cannot see a culture shift on this necessary scale happening. I fear we must look forward to a lying and frightened future.

And on that theme here’s UK based French journalist, Olivier Tonneau:

…the attack becomes all the more tragic and absurd: two young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme-right wing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly amalgamate Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism. And to me, the one question that this specific event raises is: how could these youth ever come to this level of confusion and madness? What feeds into fundamentalist fury? How can we fight it?

I think it would be scandalous to answer that Charlie Hebdo was in any way the cause of its own demise. It is true that some Muslims took offence at some of Charlie’s cartoons. Imams wrote in criticism of them. But the same Imams were on TV after the tragedy, expressing their horror and reminding everyone that words should be fought with words, and urging Muslims to attend Sunday’s rally in homage to Charlie Hebdo. As a militant in a party that is routinely vilified in the press, I don’t go shoot down the journalists whose words or pictures trigger my anger. It is a necessary consequence of freedom of expression that people might be offended by what you express: so what? Nobody dies of an offence.

Ireland, even as the only country in western Europe to have brought in new blasphemy laws in this century, has a self conception as a bastion of western free speech which is not quite consonant with the actualité.

Last Thursday’s debate on Prime Time with an Islamic religious leader at times implied that as a citizen he was was somehow wrong for suggesting that he would appeal to those laws if any Irish paper decided to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

If you read Fergal Crehan’s excellent blog on that law, there are serious questions as to whether any attempt to prosecute could succeed, but Irish law provides at least the license to make the appeal, which is probably enough to keep most journalists from taking the risk.

Last word to Scots blogger, Lallands Peat Worrier, who takes on the Scots Police, and teaches us the lesson of poor throttled Thomas Aikenhead and contemporary mealy mouthed attitudes towards free speech (and people being wrong) on the Internet…

More on this latter subject anon…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty