Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
After the carnage of last week, Charlie Hebdo decided to print a cartoon of Mohammed after all. Hmm.
In the media, there are big stories and HUGE stories. This one is HUGE. Why? Re-wind back to 9/11, 2001. Headlines everywhere like this: Attack on America! America under attack! Same thing this time, but with a twist: Freedom Attacked. Attack on Freedom!
What makes this HUGE? These men attacked not simply people, they attacked the most cherished value in Western society: FREEDOM. Free speech is sufficiently valued that when it is threatened, we in the West circle the wagons. To mix my metaphors, this is a hill we are most definitely prepared to die on. Do not question it, do not threaten it – we will take you on. See our pens? We will fight because as everyone knows, the pen is mightier than the sword . . . or Kalashnikov.
But what about some perspective, to quote Anton Ego from Ratatouille. Where does the obsessive need to keep drawing Mohammed come from? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to both affirm the principle of free speech; abhor the horrific violence of last week while also questioning the decisions of the editors of Charlie Hebdo. Surely satirists should invite debate and examination. That is the foundation on which they build their case for satire.
So, first a look at free speech as a principle. My first point is this: Freedom is defined by its limits. Freedom without limits isn’t freedom at all, it’s anarchy. No one possesses absolute freedom, since we’re finite human beings. In society, freedoms are limited by respect for others and their wishes. My freedom to play loud music at 3am is limited by my neighbour’s freedom to get a good night’s sleep.
So how do we set about defining those limits in a ‘tolerant’ society? (I’m using ‘tolerant’ here with its proper meaning – literally ‘putting up with people with whom you disagree.’) If we seek a tolerant society, then surely simply brandishing ‘free speech’ isn’t enough. After all, we already limit free speech. No racism, no sexism, for example. There are a whole bunch of things you can’t print and rightly so. Just ‘I have free speech’ isn’t a sufficiently strong argument to justify reckless or insulting behaviour.
So what’s going on in this case specifically? Now, I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but I’m bound to say that when I heard the words ‘aggressive secularism’ from a commentator’s lips this past week, I could see his point. Did the cartoonists seek to expose the ideas of Islam? Well, just one idea – that Mohammed shouldn’t be depicted. Just like in the Garden of Eden, the one thing ‘forbidden’ was the one thing they wanted to do. They had vast acreage out there to ridicule but they wanted the tree with ‘keep off’ hanging from a branch.
It’s precisely the offensiveness which attracted the cartoonists. They could have exposed all manner of beliefs within Islam itself without actually depicting the prophet, but they weren’t interested in doing that. Not really. Dare I say it, they intended to offend, protected by the principle of free speech. They would never offend black people or gays but religious people, they are apparently fair game. So why do it? Aggressive secularism or bravely exercising their free speech. You decide.
It’s worth remembering what kind of people we’re talking about when we think of those who took and continue to take offense. Let me quote from an excellent article (worth reading later here.) It’s by Bob Ekblad.
Many second generation immigrants, like Chérif Kouachi and his brother (who was orphaned and then raised in France’s foster-care system), experience tremendous alienation growing up in Western European countries as dissaffected minorities, and they find refuge in their identity as Muslims.
Ekblad gives an insightful assessment of why especially young, unemployed, alienated young European Muslims are so upset by the cartoons. And while not all Muslims are offended, the ones who do react are extremely offended. Are they not part of society also? Where’s some tolerance – the real kind – when you need it?
Perhaps it would be advisable at this point to remind ourselves of what freedom really means. Does it mean doing whatever you want? Not in the Christian tradition. Charles Kingsley, the 19C novelist and historian said it best. He wrote, there are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.
During this era, constrained by our sinful nature, we possess a certain kind of freedom and with it, we hurt and offend. We’re ‘free’ to do this. But one day, we will live in a world in which we will experience true freedom. Now, we choose badly. Then, we will choose wisely, animated by the Spirit.
And yet . . . even now, we can choose wisely. St. Paul once wrote this about our liberty.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. I Corinthians 10.23-24.
‘Just because we can doesn’t mean we should‘ applies to cartoonists as much as to Christians.
We don’t have to choose to offend people deliberately. We don’t have to belittle and ridicule. Charlie Hebdo was in the process of going bankrupt; now it’s selling millions of copies. France must decide whether its use of free speech is a wise use. It will make that decision when visiting a kiosk each day over the next few months. Is this a publication which is really worth supporting?
Satire has a long tradition, we’re told. For my part, I find satire a vehicle for extreme cynicism and of course it’s always easier to tear down than build up. Always. Jokes at other people’s expense are a dime a dozen. The courage to hold onto firmly held beliefs is much harder.
Everyone last week was horrified by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Such violence can never be justified. Ever.
But free speech in a tolerant society requires wisdom and strength. The wisdom not to publish is perhaps a greater wisdom than being swept along by calls for satirical self-expression. May free speech never come with such a price ever again. We all mourn for those who have fallen.
The wounds in France will take some time to heal. Let’s hope that Charlie Hebdo helps that process by exercising some wisdom. They might wish to consult the writings of St. Paul. Hmm.
I’m not holding my breath on that one . . .