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.


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