What happened in Paris last week has changed us all. It’s felt like another 9/11- thankfully not in levels of destruction, but in that it’s been a real watershed moment. It’s made us all stop and think about our rights and actually how free we are in today’s world. Are we free to express ourselves? Are we free to write what we really think? How free are we to ‘live’ in today’s multicultural, multi-faith society?
The staff at Charlie Hebdo felt that it was their right, and that they had the freedom to produce satirical cartoons about the Prophet (and for that matter, black people, gay people, women, Catholics and many other minority groups). Ultimately they paid for it with their lives.
Last week, I read article after article talking about freedom of speech. “It’s our democratic right.” “Uphold it at all costs.” “They will never silence us” were some of the sentiments.
As a blogger and a writer I get that. We all want to be heard, and some of us shout louder than others. But have we ever really been free to speak? Hasn’t there always been a cost? Online trolling has become a vicious part of 21st century life, with any number of people and groups receiving abuse on a daily basis, and even death threats for speaking up on their given cause.
My Muslim friends have been not only shocked and saddened by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo journalists, but they’ve also been outraged by the cartoons of their Prophet. But they’re not allowed to publicly say that, because they’ll be labelled as extremists and terrorists- they are themselves not free to speak. (And however you feel about that kind of response to the cartoons themselves is not the point. By saying someone should have freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you have to agree with what they’re saying.)
So it seems that freedom of speech comes with this caveat: if you have something that you feel is worth saying, that absolutely must be heard, then there just might be a price to pay.
Will that thought curb what we say in the future? Will the Paris attacks make us a little less bold? I hope not because it’s important that we continue to add different voices and opinions to the melting pot, because otherwise we tread dangerously into some kind of communist state media.
But in the wake of last week’s terrible attacks, how about we try to be a little more respectful of each other’s views? One editor I worked with- a black man, said today on his Facebook page: yes freedom of speech, but what about being sensitive and respectful of others? And I totally agree with him. Yes I know, that sounds idealistic, even naiive and childish. But don’t we all have the right, not to see something we hold sacred, denigrated and publically trashed? If nothing else, can we learn to be more tolerant of each other? Muslims believe that to depict their Prophet, let alone mock him is a serious offense. It’s an offense to them, as well as to their God, they believe. So why do we have to tear down what’s precious to them, just for the sake of free speech? So once again, yes freedom of speech, but can we be a little bit wiser in what we say?
One commentator in today’s Guardian put it like this:
“All societies draw lines, that are…constantly shifting and continually debated, about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities.”
As we now dust ourselves off from the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders and try to make sense of it all, perhaps it’s time that our society think about where the lines of acceptable public speech lies. It can be the only useful thing that comes from this awful atrocity.
Tomorrow: Charlie Hebdo response part 2: Muslims must respond