The discussion of free speech has once again risen up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. For some interesting reads please take a look at this article on the Ethics of Free Speech and this article that presents a Muslim’s perspective on the situation. Many of the ideas in these articles are important and so I wanted to throw them out first so that I don’t repeat their points too much. If you’re too lazy to read them (I barely had time to write blog posts anymore so I understand)though I’ll list some important points that are guiding my thoughts right now:
- How do we decide what freedom actually means?
- The argument for freedom of speech often gets turned into a “Those who want that freedom” and “those that don’t”. This is a false dichotomy because generally the disagreement lies where along a spectrum of “Freedom” we must draw the line on free speech.
- Is freedom of speech always a good thing?
- Words have power
When the news broke about what happened in France on January 7th, I have to say my reaction was not one of surprise. Muslim extremists are nothing new, and given the anger that was sparked when Danish cartoonists depicted the prophet Mohammed in their publication, I just wasn’t surprised.
Now this not to say that I didn’t think it was a terrible tragedy. Of course it is. I don’t want anyone to think that my position is that those at Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to them. There is a difference between not being surprised and thinking such an act of violence against them was deserved. There is no question that these Islamic extremists have got it wrong. They don’t understand their faith, they will fail in achieving whatever dream world they want to live in, and they will simply cause more harm to others and themselves with time. I can say that with certainty, in the long run, they will fail to get what they want and it is clear that all good people should and do oppose their aims.
Before looking at Charlie Hebdo let’s take a closer look at this whole cartoon depiction of Mohammed stuff. Perhaps by putting things into context you will understand why I was not shocked to find that this happened. First, we can agree that killing somebody over such a thing as a cartoon, no matter how offensive,
is ridiculous. That being said it is not unreasonable for someone to be offended when their religion is ridiculed. People do it all the time, they just don’t go all the way to killing somebody. I am sure there are many other moderate and peaceful Muslims who were offended by Charlie Hebdo or the Danish cartoons previously. And of course some number close to 100% of them never killed anybody over it. Satire, comedy and comic depictions of religious figures is not new, but it is relatively new. Such things quickly got you killed in Europe not so long ago if you tried to ridicule Christianity or religious leaders. And while I believe the world as a whole, on average, progresses forward in terms of morality and reason, there are pockets of people going in reverse. As an example, I find it interesting that prior to 9/11 there was no outcry about a South Park season 5 episode in which various deities from other religions banded together to save the day. I guess Mohammed was not ridiculed but still a cartoon is a cartoon. This episode was even available after 9/11 for a number of years and has only recently been pulled. I guess it was off the radar for awhile and perhaps South Park Studios didn’t want to take the chance anymore. The point is that the backlash against Islam post 9/11 seems to have had a more polarizing impact on Islam and the west, such that those who wish to do us harm have looked for more reasons to do so. Therefore, it seems to me, those who perpetrated the attack on Charlie Hebdo would have likely found another target had they not been drawing cartoons, but their doing so simply added them to a list of possible targets. Crazy people generally don’t have good reasons to cause such harm, so should we be surprised that in a country with a lot of Islam vs French tension, where a magazine is ridiculing Islam that this simply puts them on the radar of the crazy people? Personally I don’t think so.
Now let’s get back to freedom of speech. We can also agree that it’s important, but just because you have the freedom to say something that doesn’t mean you should. If you’re wife asked you if she looked fat in something, then you would have the freedom to tell her the honest truth, but I think you know how well that will work out for you. Also having freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t consequences for exercising that freedom, and law may have very little to do with it. In truth, I have the freedom to go and kill somebody. But there are consequences to that action. Those consequences may simply be a fear of getting caught, more often than not though it is our own moral center that prevents us from doing such a thing. We may even have a good reason to do so, but I also think about what my friends and family would think about me, how I would provide for my child, the times I would miss with my family, etc. We are free to do a lot of things when you think about it, but our choice to act on those freedoms must be weighed against the consequences of our actions.
One of the Charlie Hebdo satirists said “We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than to live like a rat” in regards to whether he was
worried about angering Muslim extremists. While I can feel a certain amount of respect for someone who lives by their convictions, I do wonder about the value of that conviction. Of course, the chance of dying from a terrorist attack in the west is extremely small, and perhaps if he knew that there was even a 10% chance of being a target of Muslim extremists, he might not have been so sure of himself. I am also opposed to religious extremism (or really any kind of extremism) but if I am going to have convictions on the matter that are worth dying for, satirical cartoons seem like a strange way for me to take a stand. If we want to defeat extremism, are satirical cartoons helping the situation? I doubt if any extremist has looked at one of their cartoons and said to his fellow crazy Jihadists “Hey guys…you know what…I didn’t get it before but this cartoon has really shown me we’re being ridiculous. Let’s just relax and maybe talk to some more moderate imams about interpreting the scripture in the Koran more carefully”. Furthermore it seems one of the best way to quash Islamic extremists is actually by having most of the Muslims who are more moderate on your side. Doing something that most Muslims find offensive, might not anger them into attacking you, but it doesn’t exactly win their hearts. Therefore if anybody thinks that drawing satirical cartoons of Mohammed is in any way taking a stand against Islamic extremists then you are quite simply wrong. It does nothing but divide people. At best, those who appreciate the cartoons are a group of secular intellectuals who appreciate the wit and who already agree with the points you are making. At worst, those who appreciate the cartoons are bigots wishing to eradicate all Muslims from their country. The point is, such cartoons aren’t helping and are most likely making things worse.
What people seem to forget is that 1) being right isn’t always the most important thing, and that 2) even if you want to be right there are multiple ways to make your point. Richard Dawkins is right about a lot of things, and yet many people, even humanists, atheists, and agnostics think he’s an asshole. In thinking about these cartoons, I was reminded about my confrontation with the gay bashing fundamentalist Christians who came to our campus. I asked the main guy point blank “Even if you are absolutely 100% right do you think that your offending and insulting them is going to convince them to your point of view?” He was sure that they were going to hell and so he felt that what he was doing was the strongest most direct way to get them to change their sinful ways. Anybody else of course can see that such anger and unkindness would never win the hearts of those they intend to save. The only people who are supporting them are those who already agree with them. So even though Islamic extremists are crazy, they don’t understand their faith, they cause harm, and their actions will ultimately cause them to fail to achieve their over arching aim, how we expose the extremists for what they are is just as important. Being martyrs is one of those possibilities, but the freedom to draw cartoons of the prophet Mohamed just seems like a silly way to make that stand.
Freedom of speech is an extremely important one to a free society. Speech has the power to sway. As it sways it can raise the consciousness, inspire, and lift men and women to more. However, speech also has the power to divide, misinform, offend, anger, and mislead. To quote Uncle Ben Parker “With great power, comes great responsibility”. I don’t wish for any government to censor publications like Charlie Hebdo. Taking away freedoms doesn’t help the situation either, and is never an answer to terrorism (i.e. The Patriot Act). Nevertheless, no matter how “in the right” we think we might be, let us also think about how we communicate our message. Freedom of speech is an important one to fight for, but there are many other good things to fight for and so it’s important to not get so lost in one fight that we start to lose the others.