Charlie Hebdo and the Challenge of Freedom of Expression

“I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. ‪#‎JesuisAhmed‬.” – Lebanese writer Dyab Abou Jahjah

“Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.” – American Cartoonist Joe Sacco

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

One of the things that has bothered me about the events in Paris this week beyond the extreme violence and lives tragically lost, is the celebration of the ‘moral mission’ of Charlie Hebdo to supposedly take on sacred cows in the name of free speech.

As a writer, a thinking being, and a free human being, I am completely in support of freedom of speech and expression. That quote by Voltaire is something I try to remember in all discussions I have and in how I approach politics.

There is, however, an important difference between recognition of a right and celebrating the results of its use. The right must be championed while the result must be challenged. To maintain the former, we must execute the latter.

In that vein, I do not celebrate overt racism, bigotry, and what amounts to hate-speech that are cloaked in claims of freedom of expression while masquerading as defiantly in support of all that is just and good.

I recognize the right of those who spew such hatred through their personal expression, because not to do so would be to endorse a world where humanity does not have ownership over our own personhood.

However, celebrating such hate-filled expression, let alone failing to challenge the bigoted beliefs it presents, only does us harm as a society and stunts our growth as individuals in our pursuit of personal liberty in all its forms.

Some of the attitudes expressed by Charlie Hebdo are at direct odds with the concept of open-mindedness and a free-thinking society. For example, “Charlie Hebdo once depicted a black government minister as a monkey, and in 2012, amid an uproar over an anti-Muslim film, the magazine published drawings of Muhammad naked and in demeaning or pornographic poses”.

If you canvassed societies in the Western world about which of those depictions would anger them more, I think there would be a clear answer that could be tied to what is currently accepted bigotry versus what is not. The fact that there is demonstrably accepted bigotry suggests that we are failing to challenge the results of freedom of belief and expression as a society, and instead giving in to our own bias and prejudice.

Charlie Hebdo’s response to the Islamic faith is not a critique of the bigoted narrative or barbaric actions carried out in the name of that faith. It is instead a critique of the faith itself and those who practice it, as if the mere existence of a belief counter to societal secularism is an affront to freedom. It is not.

The meeting of fanatical religiousness with fanatical anti-religiousness leaves society paying the steep price of having even the possibility of a rational discussion on belief and the source of our morality completely derailed.

The real path to human freedom – in body, mind, and societal interaction – is not by responding to vitriolic hatred with more vitriolic hatred but by coming to the table with a truly open mind, with recognition of our own biases, in an attempt to slay bigotry in all its forms. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo described above do not confront that bigotry, they contribute to it.

It is without question that these deaths were senseless and not deserved. And it could be successfully argued that being murdered for one’s beliefs is a far greater price to pay than living in ridicule for having them.

But instead of contributing to a world where either of those are possible outcomes of the freedom of belief and expression, we could do more to recognize our own contributions to the proliferation of hate in the world by creating a more welcoming discourse in which to express ourselves.

If we commit to anything after tragic events like this, let it be to the exchange of thoughtfully reasoned idea,s rather than the exchange of slurs and gunfire in service of ‘winning’ an argument.

Further Reading: Je Suis Charlie? Attacks Sparks Debate on Free Speech Limits (AP)

Further Reading: Why AP Didn’t Run the Charlie Hebdo Cartoons

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Theresa Lubowitz is a student of philosophy and public administration. Her scholastic interests lie in post-Confederation Canadian history with emphasis on federal political history as well as current affairs in Canadian civics. She has an general interest in electoral reform and is particularly interested in electoral system design theory as well as game theory in regards to balloting. Her passion is the push for the re-engagement of the electorate in regards to civic participation in Canada and hopes to play a role in the reversal of the democratic deficit creeping across the country.

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