Is freedom of speech really the issue?

Worse than hearing bad arguments from your opposer is hearing bad arguments from people on your side. And of course it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, after a hideous international event, heated outbursts of emotionally charged arguments will pour from the skies like a tropical summer rain from all sides. It has actually come to a point where I wonder if it makes sense at all to even say anybody is on my side. After all, what are the sides? Feeling compelled to take one of supposedly two sides in a complex situation is simplistic and unrealistic in itself. Of course, the Charlie Hebdo attackers were unjustifiably violent and their brutality is not even remotely comparable to any damage the newspaper may possibly have done to society. But does that really make the cartoonists the martyrs many are treating them as? Heroes in the battle to defend our most sacred value: freedom of speech? On the other extreme, is it really the best moment to accuse the cartoonists as Islamophobic racists who had it coming? And most importantly: should we be focusing on them at all?

Freedom of speech is not our most sacred value

First of all, freedom of speech is an illusion. There isn’t such a thing as a country with absolutely no limitation of expression whatsoever. Most developed/developing countries have some sort of hate-speech law, for example. And this includes France, whose laws explicitly penalize communication that defames or insults people for belonging to a certain group[ref]Hate speech laws in France – Wikipedia[/ref]. And even if the country is soft on discriminatory speech, what about cartoon pornography depicting children? What about rape and torture in video-games? Just google “banned ads” or “banned video-games” and you’ll see that most secular democracies impose some restriction on free speech. If you happen to be against any restrictions, then you’re a very radical libertarian, not an average example of a secular liberal.

Were the Charlie Hebdo cartoons bad?

So, now that we agreed that free speech can sometimes be abused in condemnable ways, let’s get to something more interesting: were the Charlie Hebdo cartoons hateful and defaming towards marginalized groups of French society? This is a complicated issue and this is not the focus of the text, but it’s certainly not a wild claim to make (more on this here and here). And saying “but they target everyone equally!” is (1) very questionable, because they clearly focus on being controversial, which too often implies aiming at minorities, and (2) not a very good defense because it is either naive or dishonest to suggest that the effects of ridiculing the top of the social hierarchy are the same as those of ridiculing the bottom in terms of status and prestige.

An attack on the freedom of speech

Many are framing the event as an “attack on freedom of speech”. They seem outraged and feel it’s their moral duty to defend freedom of speech and show they’re not intimidated by terrorists by making even more provocative drawings of Mohammed. Does this really make sense?

Let me make a comparison. In 2012, in Brazil, the comedian Danilo Gentili was being accused of racism on Twitter by Thiago Ribeiro, a black man, and responded with “How many bananas do you want in order to leave this story behind?”[ref]Popular white comedian offers black man bananas to forget about his racist jokes: Racism ingrained in Brazilian society[/ref] (“monkey” being probably the most offensive term you could possibly use to address a black person in Brazil). There was a lot of outrage in the country and most progressive, socially aware people sided with the anti-racist movement and the black community.

To my shock, I recently saw a Brazilian commenting on social media that she saw “no difference between Danilo Gentilo and Charlie Hebdo”. Let’s suppose, for the sake of the argument, that the motivation behind the backlash against the authors was the same (i.e. accusations of bigotry). Indeed, if you are cold enough to make the comparison completely out of context, it seems legitimate. But there is always a context, and in this case it makes all the difference: the black man who felt offended by Gentili took legal action and sued the comedian. The Muslim men who felt offended by the French newspaper organized a terrorist attack and murdered 12 people, including 2 cops that didn’t even have anything to do with the publication of the cartoons.

An attack on Human rights

But if you think about it, wasn’t Thiago’s lawsuit an attack on freedom of speech? I can’t see why not. It is less aggressive, certainly, but still an attack on the principle. This example makes it clear to me that what’s in question here is not freedom of speech. It is an over-interpretation of the symbolism of this event to focus on such abstract ideals. What is critical here is not the right to publish anything without restrictions, it is the much more basic rights to life and dignity that the terrorists cowardly disrespected in the brutal attacks last Wednesday. It was an attack on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It is our moral duty to support not unrestrained free speech in the aftermath of these attacks, but non-violence and justice as opposed to the fundamentalism and barbaric cult of violence present in so much of the contemporary Islamic world. It’s not about what they’re fighting against, but how they’re fighting against it.

Hate speech vs. Blasphemy

I assumed in my last argument that the motivation behind the reaction against Danilo Gentili and Charlie Hebdo was the same. It is not that simple. The vast majority of Muslims who express their outrage against Mohammed cartoons don’t accuse their publishers of being Islamophobic racists, but of blasphemy. And while I could concede that, although they frame it like this, part of the outrage may be the consequence of feeling like immigrant scum in sometimes xenophobic countries, it is not reasonable to claim religious fundamentalism doesn’t play a major role.

The main point of this text is not to deliberate on the ethics of blasphemy, but it is worth noting that it is a very different matter from racism and xenophobia, and one with very delicate subtleties. So although it is somewhat easy to condemn publications that discriminate against marginalized groups, it’s not a trivial step to condemn blasphemy with the same arguments, especially when not even the anti-blasphemy Muslims themselves are claiming that the evils of blasphemy have anything to do with racism and the reinforcing of negative stereotypes at all. It is bad because Allah says so.

The dangers of focusing on the wrong things

Events like this should get us talking about how to empower moderate Muslims. How to educate immigrants of Islamic background in a friendly way, one that acknowledges the positive aspects of their culture while firmly discouraging violence and intolerance. We must effectively convince them that, in secular democracies, you fight for your interests through political engagement and legal action, not through barbaric acts of terrorism. Some may claim it goes without saying that violence and disrespect towards life is the main problem in the recent massacre. Well, does it?

It feel sad when all I see is people ranting about freedom of speech and feeling compelled to draw even more provocative cartoons as a sort of retaliatory measure against the Muslim community. I am sad because in the battle against extremism we desperately need the help of moderate Muslims to reform the faith from the inside, and yet many lump them all together and retaliate by offending all indiscriminately: both those who would fire a lawsuit in response and those who would behead them if given the chance. I agree: it is not a good moment at all to, for example, strengthen laws against defamation based on faith. This would show the world that terrorism works. But I don’t see how retaliating would bring anything good.

On the other hand, I am also sad to see some focusing on how the newspaper was racist and xenophobic. When Flemming Rose was asked if he regretted having published the controversial Jyllands–Posten cartoons in Denmark, he said this was “like asking a rape victim if she regrets wearing a short skirt at the discotheque Friday night”[ref]Naser Khader and Flemming Rose: Reflections on the Danish Cartoon Controversy[/ref]. Something similar is happening now: it’s called victim blaming. It may actually be true that in some cases different clothes would have avoided the rape. But is it really the most constructive question to raise, even if the victim was notoriously mean and manipulative? It is generally very positive to question how the dominant class treats the vulnerable groups in a society, but turning a blind eye to the radicalism of mainstream branches of Islam and focusing on the attitudes of the West out of political correctness is dangerous and morally irresponsible.


1 thought on “Is freedom of speech really the issue?”

  1. It took me some time in order to feel like I can formulate a response to your post, without letting my anger over what happened take over my reasoning.
    You first asked yourself if you can choose a side. Of course, it happens to me to have different opinions than those I consider my friends, sometimes even on what I consider important issues. I decided that the people on my side are the ones that after i expressed an opinion, even if i’ve done it badly, they will discuss it with me, call me out if I am wrong, even call me an idiot but they will not beat me up for my opinion, nor will they think I had it coming if I were to get beat up due to my opinions. So there, that’s my side.
    Well, I do consider freedom of speech one of my most important values.I can not think of one single thing accomplished that did not need a discussion. I never really got what “sacred ” means, in general, so I definitely don’t claim to have sacred values for myself. I do understand restrictions, but my default setting is to analyze them. So even if we ban cartoon child pornography ( I have no idea if it’s banned or not, nor have i ever read any studies on what cartoon pornography does to a pedophile psyche – pretty sure there are zero studies on this, because pedophilia is one of the main things we don’t talk in our civilized countries – because we can obviously protect out kids better if we have zero understanding of pedophilia ) we still have to be able, from time to time, to reopen the discussion.
    For me there can never be a subject we all agree is to not be talked about ever again. There must a space – be it within the academia, or within the media – where hard, even horrible discussions can be handled. We have a history, long as the history of the human race of ideas we thought were true, valuable, moral only to be shown by our own cognitive evolution that we can change our minds about it.

    Were the Charlie Hebdo cartoons bad? – well, I see all around me people that know nothing about the socio-political life in France and yet they want to have an opinion on the cartoons. I don’t think it’s a useful discussion since neither of us is actually up to date about French life. All that I have read lead me to believe the magazine was a leftist one, opposing the French extremist, opposing those that wanted and also had the power to oppress the minorities in France. But i could be very well horribly wrong about this, since i don’t live in France.
    An attack on the freedom of speech – to me it was. For me the context was this – there was a magazine that was constantly threatened with the direct desire to silence the writers with fear. It’s not a singular occurrence. And fear has worked – nobody from main stream media even shown the cartoons. No matter how many people said they are standing for Charlie Hebdo, the thing is they stood alone. And this was not due to the fact that other writers looked inside their minds and hearts, searched their moral compass and decided that writing certain things is not in alignment with what they stand for. No, the reason most media outlets did not write or did not draw about certain subjects was fear.
    So when you use fear to make me stop questioning my own morals and just do as you say, when you take from me even the possibility to even show you that i might be on your own side, i take this as a huge assault on the freedom of speech.
    The context for me were the murders that existed before this ones and were the threats and were also the responses that come up from different people who went with the “violence is bad, but … “. So within this context, I felt all of this combined was an attack on freedom of speech.
    I do agree with your point about it being also an attack on human rights.
    But i also think it’s not just about the method of opposing an idea. You can peacefully impose your own view of things and it can still be a dictatorship of the majority because they are the majority. This is why I believe that no discussion can ever be the final discussion even if some issues make me sick to my stomach, or make me wish I was part of some alien race, that is in no way affiliated with the human race 😛
    I do agree with your distinction of hate speech vs blasphemy .
    I also do agree with your point about empowering moderate Muslims. Or you know, at least let some actual Muslims do the talking for Muslims, every once in a while, because it is ridiculous the amount of time the issues of Islam are talked about without even one Muslim voice being present.
    And your final point is also what pissed me off the most during the discussions over this subject – the blatant victim blaming made me crazy.
    So yeah, I guess i was feeling chatty 😛

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