The state of votes
Freedom of Speech is Not Absolute
Freedom of speech is not negotiable
Justas Kidykas | 2015. March 12. 00:00
Different issues surfaced in the aftermath of the shootings but mostly the debate has focused on one of the most important values of a modern society;freedom of speech. Many arguments and critiques have been raised, but it must be understood that the freedom of speech has not become a universally shared value: it is not equally interpreted and should not be absolute.
The fundamental value of freedom of speech has been enshrined in the United Nations Convention of Human Rights for more than 50 years, and clearly states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Article XIX). One may ask: has it really become universal?
Even though the adherence to Human Rights are considered as devotion to a modern democratic and liberal system in the political arena, in reality, most of the countries are far away from securing and providing all those rights. Moreover, there are examples of countries who simply reject the concept of universal rights considerint them as tools of Western influence. The point is, whatever freedom of speech and expression might mean in France, it can be completely differently understood in Russia or in Iraq for instance.
France indeed has a long history of satire and a tradition of mocking: from the clowns or so called buffoons, who accompanied the king whenever he needed entertainment during the Middle Ages, to the caricatures of significant French historical figures like Marie-Antoinette and King Louis-Philippe. It is possible to claim that the culture of satire is a part of French national identity. However, if we take a quick look at the other side of the world – satire has not been that prevalent in the Arabo-Muslim culture. Yet, there are individuals and figures who have been appreciated for their satire such as al-Jahiz in the 9th century and contemporary Egyptian political comedian Bassem Youssef. Yet, religion has been a much more sensitive topic to them than to the European countries, especially now. We all now remember that incident following the publication of caricatures of Mohamed in the Danish journal Jyllands-Posten received a lot of outrage from Muslims around the world. Even though I am not religious, I still believe that religion is a topic that should not be mocked because there are people to whom this issue is much more sensitive than to others and who can take satire very personally. And yet even though that there is a large group of Muslims which accept satirical mockery of religion, there are others who condemn and disapprove it – and they are not necessarily radical Islamists or fanatics.
To be clear: I greatly value the freedom of speech and believe that it is one of the pillars of a democratic society, but it must not be absolute. Of course, it is subjective to evaluate whether the caricatures of Charlie Hebdo are offensive or not, but they should definitely not be championed as the embodiment of freedom of speech. In response to the unfortunate events, many Western publishers have reprinted the caricature of Mohamed in order to express their solidarity with that authors and assert that terrorism cannot diminish our freedom. But mockery and provocative expression are not the origins of the foundation of the freedom of speech. It is all about having access to the public sphere, being able to express your criticism. Charlie Hebdo has been considered hateful, tasteless and provocative on many occassions. The reaction of politicians was disappointing as well. Regardless of the fact that the grand march in Paris was truly spectacular, the presence of world leaders like the Turkish or Egyptian Prime Ministers made their honesty of solidarity questionable to say the least.
I denounce the act of radical Islamists, but I cannot accept the glorification of Charlie Hebdo. We must be aware that people do not hold universal values and certain individuals might be more sensible than others. We should not forget about people who had sacrificed their lives, but that did not change the fact that Charlie Hebdo is reprehensible and offensive – or is that really what freedom of speech means to us today?
Anthony Kuyu | 2015. February 20. 18:30
The Charlie Hebdo attacks of January gave a new spark to what was an old debate: where does freedom fo speech end, are there any liitations to it? Are there taboo subjects or do people have the right to make fun of everything? The answer to the latter question is “yes”. Absolutely “yes”.
To give some context to potential non-French readers, who may have been misinformed about the nature of Charlie Hebdo (a mere look at some foreign newspapers being enough to realize that not all of them took the trouble to do their research): no, Charlie Hebdo is not islamophobic. No, not all their caricatures were targeting Mahomet, actually only a very small percentage of their front pages were about Islam in general. Most of their drawings were satirizing French politicians, mostly Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Marine Le Pen (leader of the Front National, main far-right political party). And when they were making fun of religion, it was mainly Catholicism. The journal was well-known for its left-wing tendencies and its opposition to all kinds of racism or discrimination.
First of all, let’s not forget what should be obvious but apparently isn’t to all: in most Western countries, the law is very clear about the protection of freedom of speech. This protection is not necessarily absolute: in France, all forms of hate speech (which includes any kind of racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic comment) are strictly prohibited. Charlie Hebdo was sued several times in the last few years, mostly by representatives of the Muslim community, because their caricatures were thought to be Islamophobic. And they never faced any kind of punishment, because each time it was found that the drawings fell within the limits of humor and freedom of speech defined by French law. So legally, Charlie Hebdo, and all those who embody Charlie’s spirit, was, and is, in its absolute right.
Now the next counter-argument would probably be along the lines of: “Yes, they were allowed to say what they said, to draw what they drew. But it doesn’t mean they should have.” And again, I will have to strongly disagree. Critical thinking is the basis of intellectual progress and with critical thinking necessarily comes satire. The moment we start deeming something – anything – as too sacred to withstand criticism, we are taking a step back as a society, and we are paving the way for a less enlightened world.
Another point that is often raised is the idea that the caricatures of Mahomet (just like the ones mocking the Pope, the Church…) were a display of disrespect towards religion. This opinion was voiced, most notoriously, by Pope Francis. First, I would say that making fun of the extremes of religion (as Charlie Hebdo was doing) is definitely not a lack of respect towards religion itself. And besides, I am kind of puzzled by this immediate assumption that religions have to be respected. Why is that exactly? Believers have to be respected, as they are human beings. The right to believe in and practice whatever one wants (so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights and well-being of others) has to be respected as we live in free, democratic societies. But why should we have the obligation to respect the beliefs themselves?
Religious beliefs, just like any beliefs, can be subjected to discussion, scrutiny, and mockery. Like any belief, it is up to each and every individual to decide whether they are worth respecting or not.
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