We are not all Charlie: why the biggest threat to freedom of expression might come from within democracies

Putting aside the usual “they had it coming” comments that have flourished on twitter and facebook, since Tuesday, I am reading reports that a number of media outlets are deciding not to show Charlie Hebdo cartoons. This seems to be the case for CNN for example, which circulated an internal memo to that effect, and Associated Press which apparently removed Charlie Hebdo cartoons from its database.

I called this reaction “sad and cowardly” on twitter yesterday, but I suppose that faced with such barbaric act of violence, I should show some understanding for the decision of these journalists who might fear for their lives. Not everybody has the courage of Charb, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, who claimed to prefer to die standing than on his knees.

The problem is that fear, which is at the end of the day a natural human reaction, is not the the justification that is always put forward. This is from the CNN memo:

Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims, platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail. This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion.

In my initial reaction to the attack in Paris against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, I claimed rather harshly that the idea one finds in human rights discourse that offense or disrespect of religion are legitimate limitations of free speech was conceptually also responsible for what happened in Paris. The CNN memo illustrates this point by putting in the same balance free speech and respect for religion.

However, there is no right to be respected in my view, either for individuals, and even less for religions. As noted by Salman Rushdie in his message of support to Charlie Hebdo, “‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.” Freedom of expression  and respect for religion, or any idea, should not therefore never be put on the same level.

Of course, some people have told me that my focus on freedom of expression is too intellectual and beside the point in response the the senseless violence that the murderers used. It is a language that they cannot start to understand.

I agree. There are some people with whom dialogue is impossible and there is no sense in invoking against them certain values, because values, contrary to the universalist ideology, imply a shared social contract, a sense of wanting to live together within the same community (vivre ensemble, in French).

This was brilliantly captured by Charb in a 2012 editorial in Charlie Hebdo:

Peins un Mahomet glorieux, tu meurs.
Dessine un Mahomet rigolo, tu meurs.
Gribouille un Mahomet ignoble, tu meurs.
Réalise un film de merde sur Mahomet, tu meurs.
Tu résistes à la terreur religieuse, tu meurs.
Tu lèches le cul aux intégristes, tu meurs.
Prends un obscurantiste pour un abruti, tu meurs.
Essaie de débattre avec un obscurantiste, tu meurs.
Il n’y a rien à négocier avec les fascistes.

[translation: Paint a glorious Muhammad , you die. Draw a funny Muhammad, you die. Scribble an ignoble Muhammad , you die. Make a crappy movie about Muhammad , you die. Resist religious zealots , you die. Lick the ass the fundamentalists , you die. Take an obscurantist for a fool , you die. Try to debate with an obscurantist , you die. There is nothing to negotiate with fascists.]

My point is very different. I am not trying to convince extremists to agree with me. They probably never will, as our views of the world and of a shared community are radically opposed.

My point is addressed at those within our democracies who try to limit free expression every day under the guise of human rights, respect or human dignity. I believe that freedom of expression is non negotiable full stop, whether with fascists or anyone else. Yet, I wonder how many of the people who are supporting Charlie Hebdo today are truly supporting freedom of expression.

Indeed, the same people who are marching in the street today, often also think that voices should be silenced through laws which vaguely define “incitement to racial hatred” or want Parliaments to legislate on history through laws prohibiting denial of certain events or crimes. Of course, they would claim that these examples are very different. What transpires from interviews done with people attending the marches in Paris is that, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are defended because they are perceived as progressive left-wingers. Whereas the likes of Dieudonné, a controversial French humorist, perceived as an antisemite, should not be allowed to do his shows. It is also the same people who would refuse that the Front National, a legally recognized French party, not participate in the general march in support of Charlie Hebdo because it is not ‘republican’ enough. It is the same people who denounce the racist caricatures of far-right newspaper Minute.

Do they not see the paradox there? Marching in the street seemingly denouncing any attack on freedom of expression while at the same time denying that the others should be allowed to express themselves… Freedom of expression is a question of principle which should not depend on the content of the expression, in the same way that the protection of the rights of the accused in international tribunals should not depend on the perception of guilt, or the our moral reaction to the horrendous nature of the crimes. I defend Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in the same way I would defend Dieudonné or Garaudy, a French holocaust denier (or his English equivalent, David Irving): because whatever they say, they should have a right to say it in a democratic society. I wonder how many people, if these shootings had taken place at Minute, would now be wearing a T-shirt with “I am Minute” on it.

In that respect I am profoundly intellectually opposed to the phrasing of of Article 10(2) of the ECHR which provides that:

The exercise of [freedom of expression], since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society

For me, a truly democratic society should not need to limit freedom of expression. It should be solid enough in its foundations to accept even the most radical opinions, however outrageous or disrespectful they are.

The problem is that too many people  have accepted this intellectual dictatorship that seeks to impose what we should think about everything and the ensuing limitations to our freedom of expression.

I see this every year in my human rights classes, where I always take freedom of expression as a case study. I do this because I realized that this seems to be the fundamental freedom, in appearance applauded throughout the world as shown by the overwhelming support for Charlie Hebdo, where students are willing to accept limitations on the basis of various moral, religious or other grounds without any further reflection. This is not the case for other freedoms, such as the prohibition of torture for example, because they create easily digestible dichotomies between perpetrator and victim, where there is no real debate whose side to be on. You are on the side of the victim, therefore you agree with the prohibition of torture. Easy. Freedom of expression is something else, because the victims are seen not as those protected by the right, but those affected by the exercise of the right by someone else. So by naturally siding with the victim, we have to disagree with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. And it is all downhill from there.

Some would claim that the conduct of the media outlets mentioned previously shows, as the phrase goes, that “the terrorists win”. Sadly, I think the situation is far worse than that. Because of our easy acceptance of limitations to freedom of expression in our societies, we have already, despite our most sincere claims to the contrary, started to erode, slowly but surely, this most fundamental freedom that is free speech. What’s worse therefore than the terrorists winning? The fact that we don’t seem to have needed the terrorists in the first place…

I conclude with this beautiful quote from French humorist Pierre Desproges, who practiced his art at a time when you could be caustic without being sued and who would cry if he woke up in France today:

S’il est vrai que l’humour est la politesse du désespoir, s’il est vrai que le rire, sacrilège blasphématoire que les bigots de toutes les chapelles taxent de vulgarité et de mauvais goût, s’il est vrai que ce rire-là peut parfois désacraliser la bêtise, exorciser les chagrins véritables et fustiger les angoisses mortelles, alors oui, on peut rire de tout, on doit rire de tout.

[translation (francophone readers will have to forgive me for this crude translation of Desproges. His mastery of the French language make it quite hard to translate): If it is true that humour is the politeness of despair, if it is true that laughter, blasphemous sacrilege that bigots of all the creeds denounce as vulgarity and bad taste, if it is true that that laughter can sometimes desacralize stupidity, exorcise the real sorrows and castigate mortal anguishes, then yes, one can laugh about everything, one must laugh about everything.]

6 responses to “We are not all Charlie: why the biggest threat to freedom of expression might come from within democracies

  1. Est ce que, dès lors, tu considères que la liberté d’expression autorise la diffamation qui peut être attentatoire au droit à la vie privée ou à la présomption d’innocence (conflits 10§2/8 ou 10§2/6)? Qu’en d’autres termes en cas de conflits de droits, il n’y aurait pas de balance des droits à effectuer mais que la liberté d’expression devrait systématiquement et nécessairement prévaloir?

  2. I tend to disagree with you that there should be no limitation on the freedom of expression. To paraphrase a famous saying that words (in this case a cartoon) cut deeper than a knife, I think it would be quite irresponsible if people were allowed to simply do and say what they wanted regardless of the offence it may cause. To say that would be to accept that same people should also be ok with whatever reaction may follow…which would be absurd.
    If it be the case that the freedom of expression is not at all qualified, then racism should be ok? Because if I believe that a particular race is somewhat beneath the other, I should be able to express myself to that effect.
    The limitation of the freedom of expression is a necessary safeguard if we are to coexist, especially in a globalised world.

  3. I could not agree more with you that religion just as any other idea is subject to criticism, satire and mockery. It is ridiculous to think that religion is shielded from that. Additionally, in my view this should not be about freedom of expression, it should be about simple logic and common sense. Religion is just another topic. Period.

    A different topic is that concerning a penalized action. Any penalized action – as long as it is in fact penalized- overrides the right of any person to do or say something. This is the balance provided by having rights and obligations. We can have a discussion on what should be penalized or not (and mocking/criticizing religion should not) but that is a different story.

  4. Pingback: Drawing the line between the freedom of expression and the prohibition of hate speech | creating rights

  5. Pingback: L’art de tracer la ligne entre liberté d’expression et incitation à la haine raciale | creating rights

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