Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Limits of Freedom of Speech.

The appalling and tragic events of the Charlie Hebdo attack have left many questions. Why were the perpetrators not spotted? Could it have been anticipated or prevented? How do people get radicalised, such that they think that taking such violent action furthers a moral cause or fulfils some warped idea of religious duty?

It also asks some important questions about the nature of free speech. The writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were engaged in satire, which lampoons those in positions of power and influence. It's the nature of satire to provoke, to be controversial, to get a reaction - hopefully with a lot of laughter. And it's not unusual for satire to make people angry. The team at Charlie Hebdo would have been well aware of that, but the ability to publish satire is a sign that a society is free.

They would also have known that there was at least a small risk that amongst those they angered, there might be people who would become violent in response to something they published. Some the issues they attacked were very sensitive, perhaps particularly when they took on religion in all its forms. In 2011 their offices experienced an attack in reaction to their publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, but they were not deterred from continuing to place no limits on who or what they satirised.

The debates that have followed seem to have at their heart whether the Charlie Hebdo team were brave, reckless, stupid or misguided to do so. It has revealed that there are some very strongly held views on all sides. One thing must be said: whatever you may think about the content of the magazine or wisdom of the team who produce it, there is no justification or mitigation for them becoming the victims of such terrible violence. This was a criminal act of murder. Alongside the wider public issues, families and friends grieve at the sudden and violent deaths of people they love, and we must not lose sight of that in the midst of other conversations.

The reaction has been profound - the expression of solidarity through the slogan "je suis Charlie" has spread rapidly, as the French people, joined by people of other nations, have asserted their rights for free speech in the face of intimidating violence. There has been a renewed appreciation of the notion of free speech, and the importance in a democracy of all views and opinions to be expressed, heard and debated.

Free speech is not, however, an entirely straightforward ideal to uphold. It seems to me that it is championed, with its own distinct interpretation, by very different groups of people with very different agendas. People we might generalise as supporters of liberal democracy are very much at forefront of the current expressions of support for freedom of speech. Yet paradoxically, at least some of them would also be at the forefront of campaigns seeking to remove expressions of extremism from the public eye.

On the other hand, people with minority view (which might or might or might not be extreme) can also be found advocating free speech. They see it as protecting their right to say things which are not (or no longer) the generally held views of society. It wouldn't take you long to find someone accused of racism / homophobia etc saying something like "whatever happened to freedom of speech" as a defence of their expressed view. Of course, some of these who are so keen on free speech to get their point across would be the first to deny it to others if they had the power to do so.

The debate at the last election around the British National Party having a party political broadcast focussed this well - the people who found the BNP's views most repellent and didn't want them on the TV also generally held strong views about freedom of expression. And recently there has been the possibility of police investigation when someone has tweeted something crass.

Should the law be used to restrict what people say, or should their silly views simply be dealt with by public scrutiny and debate?

It's not an easy subject. When the grieving is over, there will be a need to do some very careful thinking about the nature of public discourse, and how truly free we are.

1 comment:

Together Lancashire said...

Thanks Mike... You sum up a complex issue quite well.. In my view the mark of a civilised person/society/debate is that you believe in total freedom of expression, speak and write in a robust and honest way about your own views but use internal restraints of conscience not to inflame, mock, defame spread hatred against persons you disagree with, or against the things that you know people hold "sacred". In other words there is a virtue in tact. Perhaps it is a sign of the lack of restraint in our contemporary Western culture that betrays its spiritual barrenness.