Feardom of Speech

If history has taught us anything it is that it repeats itself. Upon each reoccurrence we are given the opportunity to show future historians that this mundane irony was not lost on us. In 1644, John Milton wrote, “He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” This is the stuff of revolutions. This simple sentence delivers a potent reminder of the fundamental principle behind our dearest values; those familiar values that are embraced without relent and for which brave men and women will submit a life in its prime to protect – freedom of expression, freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Milton understood that without an avatar in which to embody thoughts and ideas, reason will cease to exist and its potential to influence is lost to the world. Milton’s sentiment here can and should be extended across all forms of expression: poetry, theatre, art, dance and yes, satirical cartoons.

In the days following the senseless and brutal slayings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, media outlets across the globe released a number of images printed by Charlie Hebdo that are thought to have been the primary motivations of the Islamists behind the attacks. In Canada, a number of papers, including RadioCanada and the National Post, printed the satirical cartoons, however many did not. Of particular note is the CBC, who, in response to boat loads of negative feedback including from their national and international counterparts, aired a six-minute defense of their decision to opt out. David Studer, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices and spokesperson in this clip, articulated in a confident voice a four-pronged rationale. First, not depicting the prophet is a central tenet of Islam; second, Charlie Hebdo’s intention was to offend; third, the images do not need to be viewed to be understood; and fourth, it is not the CBC’s role to provide their listenership with opinions or feelings on the stories they report.

If the limb that Studer has straddled has not yet broken, it’s because listeners are willing to skate along this story’s surface with no interest in knowing how deep the ice is or what lies beneath. While it matters little to the broader picture, depicting the prophet is a contentious issue amongst Muslim scholars, and the reference in questions (which is found in the Hadith, not the Koran) relates specifically to fears of idolatry, not fears of ridicule. Clearly, the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are not at risk of recruiting idolation amongst the Muslim community; an obvious contradiction therein lies. Similarly, protests appealing to blasphemy are equally impotent as these restrictions are only applicable to followers of the religion. On the issue of Charlie Hebdo’s intention, of course it is conceivable that inciting a rise within a subset of the Muslim community was to some unknown extent a motivation, however it is also possible that, like the majority of Hebdo’s satirical prints, the intent was to critique an ideology that has been subject to similar challenges for centuries across a multitude of forums and temporal contexts. There is no mystery in this; it is the mission of all forms of journalism.

Studer’s claim that the images in question do not need to be viewed to be understood brings to mind chilling parallels with totalitarianism. Thank you sir, but please allow me to decide for myself next time. And regardless of whether they are “needed” or not, they DO add value to the story the CBC has only partially reported on. With respect to the final element of Studer’s argument – that the CBC is not in the business of disseminating opinions or choosing sides – it is difficult to know where to begin, as this statement is infected with cowardice; so much so that its pestilence effectively distracts from even the most noblest of acts…. In particular, the one in question; solidarity.

As the events of Paris circulate across desks of journalists, intelligentsia, politicians, academics and the general public, they are dissected with the sharpest of instruments, and time after time it is ‘fear’ and ‘solidarity’ that resonate with the highest pitch. The CBC is adamant that their decision to opt out was not motivated by fear. And as an affront to their journalistic brethren by suffocating any spark of solidarity, they seek shelter in the shallow cover of “this is not our job.” This is not only contemptible to their profession and industry, it wreaks of a cowardice that might not be embedded in the thought of radical retribution, rather the economic reprisal of uncomplimentary ratings vis-à-vis a dismayed, if not agitated, liberal viewership.

As Bill Maher and Sam Harris have opined, there is a disconcerting tendency amongst liberals, of whom I myself affiliate, to prioritize the goal of not offending above all other liberal values. The argument goes as follows: if a subset of Muslims oppress and marginalize women, homosexuals and apostates, this is bad, but calling them out on it is worse as it smells of bigotry or xenophobia. It is likely that this sentiment derives from the unwritten rule that criticism of religion is off the table. This rule resides almost exclusively with the left and has its formation, I believe, in correlation. For example, it goes like this: the Muslim religion is associated with an identifiable group of people; criticizing an identifiable group of people is consistent with racism; therefore criticism of Islam is racist. There are many reasons why this is absurd; I hope I need not explain why. But it does seem to leave its mark within liberal circles.

While some have guided, if not formed, their feelings toward the Charlie Hebdo cartoons by the offence they convey, others have built their foundation on hate assumptions. In other words, many have labeled these cartoons as hateful. An important distinction must be drawn between satire and hate. Here is what we know: the cartoons printed by Charlie Hebdo were meant to be satirical. We don’t know the motivations behind the drawings. It is probably safe to assume that these images were not fuelled by hate, as we would not assume this for the hundreds of other topics Charlie Hebdo has satirized, including the other two Abrahamic religions.

Now, even if the cartoons were forged from hate, would this change our opinion on whether they should have been printed? In 1929, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the U.S. Supreme Court said “the principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.” The expression of hate provides two benefits from its entrance into the public sphere: 1) it provides one with information about the beliefs of another; it enables one to know thy enemy; and 2) it ignites the embers of dialogue on what might be an important issue. This provides an opportunity to re-establish or strengthen the positions against the hateful rhetoric and place it on display for public scrutiny. So, while the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were almost certainly not fuelled by hate, had they been, the question of whether the printing of them should have been prevented remains “no.”

An unsettling number of people who have responded to these despicable events have thought it necessary to attach the caveat that they condemn all forms of hate speech, mockery and disrespect toward the Muslim community. Not only does this distract from the importance of free speech and the lengths some will go to dismantle it, it also employs a blindingly obvious false premise – satire of this kind is meant to direct criticism at an idea or ideology, not those that adhere to it.

The claim that the Charlie Hebdo images should be censored or withheld based on some misplaced attachment of hate or potential to offend is risible. One must be careful for what he wishes for; permitting such restrictions to trespass on one’s freedom of speech also risks one’s own religious freedoms to be trespassed on. In a scenario where hate is naïvely attributed to such things as cartoons, how then are we to deal with the bible, which includes literal and indisputable messages of hate, such as “Go up, my warriors, against the land of Merathaim and against the people of Pekod. Yes, march against Babylon, the land of rebels, a land that I will judge! Pursue, kill, and completely destroy them, as I have commanded you, says the Lord – Jeremiah 50:21-22.” Likewise, from the Quran “We will cast into the hearts of the unbelievers terror, for that they have associated with Allah that for which he sent down never authority; their lodging shall be the fire; evil is the lodging of the evildoers – 3:151. “ These are but two examples from books that are so replete with hate that if turned to the wrong page could be mistaken for writings of an Islamist martyr seeking god’s glory through acts of unthinkable violence.

The time is ripe to revisit our values; to dwell on them, if necessary. There is indeed much at stake in this conversation; progress is just one of them.