An assembly on freedom of speech and Charlie Hebdo
There is no food like food for thought.
I’m very aware that I’m, somewhat nervously, standing before a group of our generation’s best and brightest. This country’s future leaders and thinkers. And for a few short minutes I stand here to meekly offer you some of my research and own musings in the hope that you might approve, or, at the very least, not fall asleep.
So why “food for thought”? Why this mysterious burger? Well, I believe that Camp Hill is not just a place for mere learning. But, something far more. Camp Hill is a place to think, and understand, and the distinction there is meaningful. The best minds thrive on food for thought, and so I think it’s our scholarly duty to be constantly questioning, never taking things for granted.
I want to share with you some of my recent brain-food. Outside of the classroom, the best supermarket to get your brain grocery is the news.
The most interesting thing that’s caught my brain’s attention over the past few weeks in the news is this:
Freedom of Speech. “Freedom to insult”, “satire”, “the free press”, “journalistic freedom” are all words that have been flying into my ears. And it occurred to me that, yes I can keep up with current events, but, for a phrase I hear so often, I’ve devoted very little brain-time to the idea itself of “Freedom of Speech”. But it’s surely worth investigating, right?
After all, it is one of many fundamental freedoms that underpins our way of life. Our ideology of capitalism, secularism, democracy. So it’s worth at least a little thought, and a little research.
“Freedom of Speech” is… The inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly, without fear of censorship or punishment. Now, It’s immediately obvious that freedom of speech can’t exist in a functioning society. At least, not without some limitations.
We have laws against defamation; lying to harm others. Sedition; any activity that might cause uprising. We have to maintain professional and journalistic standards.
But a recent poll in France revealed that people are divided over freedom to insult (at 57%) or not (at 42%). Do I have a right to insult and offend?
This is perhaps for yourselves to mull over. I mean, if we consider the idea of freedom of speech being a so-called universal right, as a liberal ideological standpoint, then I think we have to also think of another standpoint.
I think that basic human civility to respect others is a truly universal standpoint. A bedrock for progress and function, development of ideas, and one that predates and I think eclipses the principles of today’s ideology. It’s a fundamental value so basic that it doesn’t need codifying. I should not be free to, for example, stand here and use anti-semitic or racist rhetoric. Gross insensitivity, insolence, contemptuous rudeness have no place in human civility.
All cultures have red lines. Insult is not an acceptable mode of interaction for mature, self-respecting people. Humans. Is it just a way for pseudo-intellectuals with nothing to offer and no intent to engage to force their own views? Insult and offence offers nothing to society except hate and division. Insult, undermines the very purpose that Freedom of Speech envisioned. So I think the burden is on insolence to prove its use.
Let’s examine our principle of Freedom of Speech again. Even at the birth of our western liberal ideology, it was upheld as a basic value for three specific ends. Profession of ideas, inquiry into truth, and ability to account government, as opposed to hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy and divine right of kings, which the enlightenment thinkers saw as oppressive and tyrannical. Freedom to insult plays no part in ideas, truth or accountability, and is just not conducive to a well-functioning society.
So that is the theoretical side of freedom of speech. Let’s look at it in practice.
In the UK, the Public Order Act makes “Threatening, abusive or insulting words” an offence. Australia’s Commonwealth Criminal Code makes it an offence for a postal or similar service to be used in a way that reasonable people would regard as offensive.
We no longer tolerate vile depictions of black and indigenous people in cartoons that were seen decades ago. A newspaper was forced to apologise by the Australian Attorney General for publishing an anti-semitic cartoon. Azhar Ahmed was sentenced after being found guilty of “grossly offensive communication” after condemning British soldiers on Facebook. An Australian man was convicted according to the Commonwealth Criminal Code for sending offensive letters to soldiers’ families. And It is illegal in 15 european countries to deny the holocaust.
But there’s a second standard.
Though the Charlie Hebdo murders were horrific and widely condemned, a moral, polar hysteria swept the globe. If you weren’t apologising for, or condemning the attacks, if you weren’t tweeting #JeSuisCharlie, then you were an enemy of Freedom of Speech, and of our ideology itself. Unity marches became demonstrations for freedom.
Condemnation isn’t enough, but Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons must be endorsed and republished.
“Charlie Hebdo is freedom of speech”. Only, it isn’t. The Magazine itself censored, apologised, and fired long-time cartoonist Siné for a caricature that insulted president Sarkozy’s son and wife.
I did not want to make this assembly about Charlie Hebdo, but if any of you are interested in dining more at this particular table, I recommend to you Olivier Cyran’s 2014 letter to two of the cartoonists at the magazine which he used to work for, in which the former employee damningly accuses the magazine of propagating anti-muslim sentiment. I say this not to justify the attacks, but it is certainly food for thought. Also read the magazine’s founder, Henri Roussel’s remarkable essay in the Nouvel Observateur.
Even moving away from the freedom to insult, France claims to be one of the most liberal countries. Yet it was the country that banned the niqab, and bans headscarves in public buildings. It was the first country in the world to ban pro-palestinian marches. French comedians and satirists have been convicted and fined for insulting the memory of the holocaust. And am I the only one who finds it just a bit hypocritical that Paris’ mayor wanted to sue fox news, quoted as saying “I don’t accept insults to our city and its inhabitants”
Without delving too much into current affairs, history and politics, this just about sums up my view, for now, on freedom of speech.
It is nice to think and consider what makes our society tick. But with mass surveillance coming to light, and the full extent of political and financial corruption being revealed, it makes you wonder about how many of these need revisiting.
So yes, I’m just developing my views at the moment, but the real message of this assembly was “think”. Think, Camp Hill students, have opinions. Discuss. Read. After all, the best food, is food for thought.