Missing the point on freedom of speech

The staff of Charlie Hebdo deserved to be protected from terrorism and censorship but not criticism of their cartoons.

The murderous terror attack on the staff at the French satirical magazine and the police officers who tried to save them is an atrocity. As such it naturally has produced anger and an urge to defy its perpetrators. That has led to the magazine becoming a symbol of free speech: the hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’ has become a rallying cry, the people behind the magazine have been proclaimed as heroes, the project of offending religions declared to be inherently worthwhile and even the suggestion that as deplorable as their killing was their cartoons were nonetheless unpleasant has itself been seen by some as a taboo. We’ve even had the suggestion from the normally sensible Kenan Malik that we are not only free to publish cartoons that Muslim’s find offensive but apparently obligated to do so.

Clearly terrorism needs to defied and the right to publish without fear of violence needs to upheld but that still leaves me uncomfortable about this identification with Charlie Hebdo. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann does a good job explaining why:

The editors and cartoonists murdered in Wednesday’s attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo are now martyrs for the cause of free speech. Threatened with death for publishing drawings of the prophet Mohammed meant to mock Islamic radicals, they refused to censor themselves, and so were gunned down. They died bravely for an ideal we all treasure.

But their work featuring Mohammed could be sophomoric and racist. Not all of it; a cover image of the prophet about to be beheaded by a witless ISIS thug was trenchant commentary on how little Islamic radicalism has to do with the religion itself. But often, the cartoonists simply rendered Islam’s founder as a hook-nosed wretch straight out of Edward Said’s nightmares, seemingly for no purpose beyond antagonizing Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, believe that depicting Mohammed at all is blasphemous.

This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement that has used liberal values like secularism and free speech to cloak garden-variety xenophobia. France is the place, remember, where the concept of free expression has failed to stop politicians from banning headscarves and burqas. Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.” As Jacob Canfield wrote in an eloquent post at the Hooded Utilitarian, “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”

So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t.

There is something rather illogical in the impulse to proclaim Charlie Hebdo’s output to be more meritorious than it was. Surely the whole point of freedom of speech is that covers speech in general not just what we consider to be good speech?

Indeed in the context of terrorism, we ought to go further. Even had the staff at Charlie Hebdo been publishing something that would have been a legitimate target for state censorship*, say explicit calls for violence against Muslims, then that would have been a matter for the police and courts not Kalashnikov wielding fanatics.

A convincing argument for freedom of speech needs to be able to deal with the fact that not all those who fall under its protection are saying sensible or desirable things. We will often have to  defend people we wouldn’t want to be identified: Je ne suis pas Charlie but I don’t have to be to think they ought to be able to speak out in safety.


This comes much closer to my attitude to freedom of speech than ‘Je suis Charlie’:

Though obviously I am not like Ahmed, he’s clearly a much braver man than me.

*To clarify they were not.

Vietnam is a country not a war

Say ‘Vietnam’ to someone from Europe or North America and the word that is almost certain to come to mind is ‘war’. This lamentable tendency to focus on a narrow slice of the past ignores how important the country is likely to be in the future.

Homo sapiens have lived in the land that now constitutes Vietnam for more than three thousand years yet in the English speaking world we only seem interested in about 20 years of that history: those during which Americans were fighting there.

This fact became rather obvious to me when I started looking for books about Vietnamese history. The war is covered in exhaustive detail: if want a book about a particular unit or piece of kit then chances are it exists.* By contrast, I’ve so far found only a single English language history of Vietnam for a general reader. It’s over a 1000 pages long and a friend who’d read some of the authors other work concluded he was ‘a tool’. Which probably explains why I’ve not been able to motivate myself to get beyond page 85!

This neglect is lamentable – though one I didn’t even notice until I decided to move to Vietnam – because Vietnam is an important country in world affairs and is likely to become more so in the near future. Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s big. It has a population of 90 million people which makes it the 14th largest country in the world. It’s therefore larger than any of Egypt, Germany, Turkey, Iran, France, Thailand and the UK and South Africa: all of which are discussed much more widely in the Western press.
  2. It’s a rapidly growing economy. Since reforms began in 1986, it has moved from being a closed socialist economy to an open market based economy. That has led to an impressive growth rate: it has taken it a little more than a decade for Vietnam to double the size of it economy. Therefore, knowing about Vietnam may be literally as well as figuratively profitable.
  3. It’s geopolitically important. The curse “may you live in interesting times” is supposedly Chinese. This is fitting because bordering the rising global superpower is making things ‘interesting’ for Vietnam. The BBC correspondent Mark Mardell has warned about it becoming ‘the Ukraine of the Pacific’. Watch with interest how Vietnam charts a course between China and the US.
  4. Political controversy. The desire on the part of the US and other NATO countries to pull closer to a potential ally against China has and is likely to continue to run into anxieties over the Communist Party’s less than stellar human rights record.
  5. There’s a large Vietnamese diaspora. Over 3 million people of Vietnamese ancestry now live outside Vietnam, many of them in those countries that routinely reduce their country to a historic battlefield.

So even if you are not planning to move to Vietnam, it’s still worth finding out about. As my struggles finding books implies I’ve not got a huge amount to recommend that might help you. However, I did find Vietnam: Rising Dragon by former BBC correspondent Bill Hayton a good place to start.


 Next on Matter of Facts: Why Britain needs more Vietnamese food.


*It’s largely besides the point here but when I say histories of the War are ‘exhaustive’, I actually mean books about the American side are. English language discussions of a war in which the majority of the combatants and casualties were Vietnamese often reduce them to cameo roles. Even the actual fighting and diplomacy are often to relegated to discussion of ‘Vietnam’ as an inspiration for protest songs, movies and talking back to your parents.