A pragmatic approach to free speech

A pragmatic approach to free speech

It’s difficult not to recall the bloodbath that was the Charlie Hebdo shooting a little over a year ago. Two armed men with links to al-Qaeda stormed the offices of the satirical French newspaper, killing eleven people. In the aftermath of the attacks, some of us embraced the words “Je suis Charlie”, determined to protect free speech. Others refused to do so, convinced that the offensive humour which the newspaper chose to indulge in was little more than hate speech. In a defiant cry of solidarity, editors around the world continued to publish the cartoons that had provoked the attacks. But in retrospect, was it all worth it? Is there truly any merit in testing the limits of free speech – or indeed, in flaunting our right to it – by going out of our way to deliberately offend? And to what end?

The Charlie Hebdo attacks are, to some extent, a stark reminder of the ways in which language and visual imagery can inspire and offend. Yet, as history tells us, subversive satire has played an integral role in French history. The press has generally been the most influential force in France, inciting its people to revolution many a time with cartoons belittling powerful authorities, such as the royal family. Eventually, when the nation emerged as a secular state, it was established that “no one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as [these] do not interfere with the established law and order.” Charlie Hebdo insists that its polemics and satirical cartoons do not interfere with the established law and order. However, the newspaper’s strongest critics, notably the broader religious community, continue to view its contentious publications as a subterfuge for religious and racial prejudice.

In 2007, over a hundred French Muslim graves were desecrated and a pig’s head was mounted on a gravestone in what was condemned as a “revolting act” of Islamophobia. In the aftermath of the Paris shootings, twenty-six mosques around France were subject to attack by gunfire, firebombs, pig heads and grenades. The irony here is palpable: how is law and order truly being upheld when unfettered freedom of expression provokes senseless violence and carnage? While retaliatory violence is never justified, neither is the hate speech that gives rise to it in the first place. Why should the right to free speech have to be pitted against the right to religious freedom? Is it so fanciful to assume that one should be able to practise their religion, and not to be condemned for it?

It is true that kneejerk “publish and be damned” responses have only fanned the flames of resentment among Muslims. However, we should not be so naive as to assume that this issue concerns one specific religious group alone. In August 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald published a controversial cartoon likened to Nazi propaganda, depicting an elderly Jew, donning a kippah, sitting alone and clutching onto a remote control device. His armchair was emblazoned with the Star of David, and, to add insult to injury, he was gleefully overseeing explosions in Gaza. The supposedly reputable newspaper, after suffering much backlash, promptly apologised for publishing “menacing cartoons that continue to haunt and traumatise generations of Jewish people”.

Similarly, the 1987 “Piss Christ”, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s own urine, which was exhibited in a French gallery, engendered bitter opposition from Christians. It appears we’ve forgotten what visual imagery does best. To attack the powerful and corrupt is a noble feat, but to deride and devalue various faiths that give people’s lives a sense of meaning is not only insensitive but also ignoble. The Charlie Hebdo attacks should serve as a clarion call to us all: whilst we may have the right to freedom of opinion and expression, we should be prepared to confront the consequences of our actions. Thus, the media would do well not to publish incendiary material that is solely intended to offend, without contributing much to the political discourse. There are, of course, ethical codes and standards which journalists are tasked with upholding. As valiant seekers of the truth, they must necessarily take care not to veil it behind a smokescreen of rhetoric.

We should be proud to be Australian. Our pride stems predominantly from a fierce belief in the inherent rights of all individuals. This belief forms an important part of our national identity. However, if we are to preserve the liberal ideals we so cherish in our multicultural society, we must adopt a pragmatic approach to freedom of expression. We must temper free speech with a little more respect for shared human values. Respect is the bedrock of any egalitarian society, and it is not possible to demand it from those whom we flagrantly offend. The Charlie Hebdo attacks are telltale signs of an eroding social order.

These are warnings we all need to heed, lest our streets be sullied with the same bloodshed witnessed in Paris. We need to more readily embody the principles reflected not only in our law, but also in our national anthem, which boasts of a land for “[all] Australians… young and free”. Of course, no one would seriously want to live in a hypersensitive dystopia where personal liberties are curtailed. We simply have to take responsibility for our actions by being prepared to live with the consequences that they may reap. Although Charlie Hebdo purports that it mocks everyone equally, there is little excuse for it to keep up with this no-holds-barred irreverence that is clearly maintaining prejudice. Our opinions may, but should not, run rampant, and if they are met with fierce opposition, we shouldn’t at all be surprised. In the words of the English writer Gilbert Chesterton, “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”