Tuesday, 20 January 2015
Am I Charlie?
For the past two weeks, most of my spare time has been taken up by the deeply unpleasant business of moving house. We’ve only moved a few hundred yards, but nonetheless the process of packing, moving, unpacking and cleaning has been neither brief nor easy. (And, indeed, we only got the internet back yesterday!)
This is all by way of an excuse for not having written a new blog post for a little while, especially given the events of the past couple of weeks. Having pontificated previously on the question of free speech, offense, blasphemy and religious toleration, I thought I’d better weigh in on this one too, and let you all know the Important Thoughts I’ve had on the subject.
Firstly of course, I should restate my absolute belief that anyone should have the right to say anything to anyone, and not face violence, persecution or prosecution. If we wish to have freedom of speech, we have to accept that people are free to speak, whether they are racists, fascists, lunatics or even people who disagree with me on any subject whatsoever. People have the right to be as offensive, crude, vulgar, blasphemous or generally unpleasant as they can possibly be, and do so without fear of violent or legal reprisal. Of course, they also have to accept that others can act in exactly the same way towards them.
However, as Chesterton once said, “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” I believe absolutely that you should have the right to be offensive. I would defend it to the death. That does not mean that I think you actually should be offensive. The cartoons published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were offensive, and deliberately so. They have every right to publish them. I just don’t think that they should have. Not out of fear, you understand. If there was any suggestion that someone was not saying or publishing a thing purely out of fear of attack, then I would strongly suggest that they say it or publish it, and I would be happy to publically support them, if only because the kind of people who resort to intimidation and threat are perhaps the only sort of people who actually do need belittling and insulting.
No, I think that they should have refrained from publishing those cartoons for the simple fact that they were insulting. I do not like having my beliefs and opinions insulted. Challenged, yes. Having them challenged is absolutely vital, but insulted? No. It’s the issue I take with much of the aggressive, evangelical atheism I see online. Much of it seems to be far more interested in insulting religious belief than in challenging it in a sensible, respectful (but nonetheless challenging) manner, and this is helpful to no-one whatsoever. Satirise it by all means. Make fun of it, laugh at it, but stop short of direct insult if you want the conversation to continue. Charlie Hebdo might hold itself up as an icon of free speech, and in a faintly unpleasant, distinctly canary-like way I suppose it is, but to me it also represents the abuse of free speech to deliberately upset others in a way that is completely non-constructive. If anything, it’s just entrenched people’s views, widened divisions, added grist to the extremist mill and generally made things worse.
In a way, I actually think the cartoon of Mohammed printed in the first issue after the attack was more justified, since it acted as a signal that the magazine would not be swayed by violence or threats of violence, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think the initial cartoon can be justified by a mere appeal to the principal of free speech.
The BBC (yeah, yeah, I know) ran an article about people getting fired for posting racist comments online. Well, which are we going to have? Do we want free speech, in which Charlie Hebdo can publish offensive cartoons, or do we want limits on what one can say, even as private individuals online? Should people be racist? Of course not. Should they be ostracised or, preferably, reasoned with and educated? Very much so. Should they lose their job (assuming of course that they are not acting in an official manner, or on a company blog or twitter feed etc, or otherwise representing the company when they make the post) over their (unpleasant, offensive) personal opinions? My opinion on holocaust denial is the same. Historians who deny the holocaust should be publically identified as very poor historians, and their scholarship and credentials rightly scrutinised and doubted, but should it be illegal? Should it be against the law to hold an erroneous opinion? I believe not. We cannot have it both ways, and only maintain the right to be offensive when it’s not us being offended.
If we actually believe in the principle of free speech, and we certainly claim to, then we have to accept that it applies to everybody equally, irrespective of their position or opinion.