On Charlie Hebdo and Free Speech

Alan Haworth argues the Charlie Hebdo attacks were an assault on a particular view of the good society, one which views citizens as both equal and free.

Exactly what did the Charlie Hebdo killers do wrong? Answers appear so obvious that the question can seem odd. For a start, there is the obvious fact of deliberate, cold-blooded murder. Then there is the fact that the “punishment” (if such it can be called) was completely out of proportion to the “crime”. Even if Hebdo’s cartoons had been as offensive to the religious as some claim, that wouldn’t have justified the brutal “execution” of the cartoonists, any more than the offensiveness to women of the Sun’s soft- pornographic page three would have justified some group of militant feminists in machine-gunning that paper’s editorial board. Then again, there is the consideration that the killers were claiming to act with authority while interfering in the affairs of a country within whose jurisdiction they in fact had none (and, not only that, a country with a tradition of laïcité and a right to free speech embodied in its constitution). The list of iniquities is considerable and it could be extended further but - note - you can get quite a way down the list before the subject of free speech is even mentioned.

Even so, it is upon the idea that the assassinations represent an especially significant assault on the value of free speech that commentators have tended to focus. Just for example, at one extreme we find George Galloway of the not-so-liberal Left, and head of Britain’s Respect party, stating that, “we condemn utterly the murder of 17 people in the events in Paris. But we will not allow this Charlie Hebdo magazine to be described as a kind of loveable, anarchic, fun book of cartoons”, and that, ‘it is a racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag’. (Galloway was speaking at a ‘freedom of speech demonstration’ held in Bradford City Hall, at the heart of an area heavily populated by Muslims.) At another, we find Salman Rushdie, quoting John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, insisting that “Freedom is indivisible” and that “You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo … But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak”.

What, then, are we to make of this emphasis upon the “free speech issue”? Put it this way: there are many reasons for condemning the attacks, but is the fact that they represented an assault upon free speech one of them? Again, the question can seem odd, for it’s hard to believe that there aren’t cartoonists and others who will now be thinking twice before embarking upon projects they had in mind. However, there could be more to be said on the subject, and I offer the following observations with that in mind.

First; if you want to gain a clear picture of the issues which are at stake here, you won’t get very far if you concentrate exclusively on tensions which are likely to arise between one person’s liberty to express an idea, an opinion, or an attitude, and the injury such expression is likely to cause to the sensitivities of another person or group. Ask: is it a good thing, other things being equal, that people should be free to express their ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and the like? The answer ought to be obvious. Of course it is. Now ask: other things being equal, isn’t it wrong that people’s feelings should be offended and hurt by the things other people say? Again, the answer has to be that of course it is. But what is needed here is a way of balancing the one against the other - the former good thing against the latter wrong thing - for we want to determine when, and why, one should override or trump the other, and you won’t determine that simply by focusing on qualities intrinsic to the factors you are trying to balance.

I mention the foregoing tension mainly because it is so often held to be the point at which the core of the “free speech question” is to be located. People take sides here. Some hold that liberty of expression is a right which must always trump any right there may be not to be offended or hurt by its exercise. Against this, others hold that the former right is sometimes trumped by the latter. (Clearly, George Galloway is a case in point. The Pope is another. Apropos the Hebdo case, he said, “You cannot make fun of faith”.) But in the absence of a credible external criterion - one which can be appealed to in order to determine, in particular cases, which factor overrides which - neither view is persuasive.

By way of illustration, take a recent case, that of Kyle Sandilands, an Australian radio presenter with a popular morning show. In November 2011, Sandilands ran into trouble thanks to his having taken one of his critics to task by describing here as a “fat slag”. Addressing her, he said, “What a fat bitter thing you are. You’ve got a nothing job anyway. You’re a piece of shit”. (There was more in the same vein. He went on to describe her as “not having much titty” and said, “Watch your mouth girl, or I will hunt you down”.) Unsurprisingly, there were complaints, and - here is the point - Sandilands said this in his defence: “We live in a country of free speech. You’re allowed to say what you want and so am I”.

Of course, Sandilands is just one example of a contemporary phenomenon - the boorishly offensive media presenter claiming to defend “free speech” against “political correctness” - but, in any case, I take it that readers will agree with me that his invocation of the former right is pretty feeble. It invites the rejoinder “If that’s an exercise of the right to free speech, what’s so special about free speech?” I think readers will agree with me that, if there any cases in which the “right” to free speech doesn’t trump any offence it may cause, this is one. But then, why? Surely it cannot be the simple fact that Sandiland’s remark was offensive, for, if that were the case, the existence of a legally protected right to free speech would be pointless and nothing interesting would ever be said. I expect those same readers will agree with me about that too.

But, with that, let me turn to the relevance of all this to the Hebdo case. It is this: if it were the case that the right to free speech always trumped injury to the sensitivities of others, it would follow that the attacks necessarily represented an assault upon that right. However, if the former trumped the latter only sometimes, then - what? Is Galloway suggesting that the bombers had an excuse? Certainly, Galloway thinks that, “The honour of religious people, their prophets, their beliefs is not fair game for such people [the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists]” and his rhetoric is underpinned by a portrait of Muslims in British society as a “marginalised” and “alienated” group whose prophets need protection from “obscene and pornographic provocation”. (Clearly, something depends on how accurate this portrait is.) Less stridently, Mehdi Hassan, writing in the New Statesman, has argued that, “None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or, for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed”. This is pretty much the implication of my account of the Sandilands case, so I can hardly disagree, but I do think there is more to be said.

Before that however, let us consider the familiar argument that, while there is a right to free speech, there are limits to that right. This is implicit in Hassan’s just quoted remark that, “None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech”. Similarly, the Pope, commenting on the Hebdo attacks, has said, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits”. (It is reported that, having said this, the Pope, “gestured to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side, and added: ‘If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal’”. So, does the Pope think that murdering twelve people in cold blood is no more serious a moral transgression than merely punching someone on the nose? If so, that strikes me as extraordinary.)

So, how should we assess the claim that there are limits? Well, as a start, note that it is open to at least two interpretations. According to one, the limits actually define the right itself. It is held that there is, in fact, no right to the exercise of free speech beyond that boundary. According to the other, the limits do not define the extent of the right. On the contrary, it is held that, although there is a right to free speech, one which remains intact even in cases beyond the boundary, it can sometimes be morally wrong to exercise that right. To appreciate the difference, note that each yields a different representation of the Sandilands example. Thus, on the first interpretation, there is no right to free speech such that Sandilands had a right to abuse his target in the way he did. On the second, he does have a right to free speech, just as he is claiming, but this was a situation in which he was wrong to exercise the right. (In case you find the point a little picky, note that there is nothing especially mysterious about the idea that it would be wrong to do something you have a right to do. For example, if you owe me money, then I may have a right to claim it back, but if I am filthy rich and you are in desperate poverty then it may be wrong of me to do so. Or again, you may have a right to commit adultery with someone, even though it would be morally wrong.)

Now - to take each interpretation in turn - it will be clear, I think, that the first is manifestly unpersuasive. As a start, note that, if it were correct the process of legislation would be a nightmare. Any constitutional clause ascribing a right to free speech to the citizens could only be a piece of shorthand, one which would have to carry with it a long line of exemption clauses, implicit or explicitly stated. For example, it might have to say, “Everyone has a right to free speech except for radio presenters who call their listeners rude names, people who insult religion or say ‘curse words’ against the Pope’s mother…” and so on. (Would the list of exemptions have to be infinite? Certainly, the future is ever present with new possibilities.) More to the point, there is the question of how the list of exemptions is to be compiled, and by whom? Unsurprisingly, the Pope is keen to draw a protective line around religion. (“One cannot make fun of faith”.) Against this, I should have thought that the freedom to criticise the beliefs of others, including their religious beliefs, is just the sort of freedom a right to free speech ought to guarantee. Never mind offences to dignity or, as some might put it, pomposity. Finally, it’s hard to see how the claim that on the one hand there is a right to free speech but that, on the other, there are limits, can avoid the charge of hypocrisy; that is, of granting a liberty with one hand while removing it with the other.

By contrast, the second interpretation has more going for it, or so it seems to me. That is partly because it reflects what I take to be an everyday fact, namely that we do exercise our judgement in deciding when to speak and when to remain silent. Refraining to exercise a “right to speak” may simply be a matter of diplomacy or good manners and, should you refrain, it doesn’t follow that you don’t have the right. But more to the point, the distinction it invokes - the distinction between having a right to free speech on the one hand, and, on the other, there being situations in which it would be wrong or, as it may be, inappropriate or just pointless to exercise it - reflects a crucial difference. The difference lies in the political dimension, which is present in the case of the right to free speech but absent in, for example, the case of the moral principle prohibiting the subjection of others to verbal abuse.

Points to note here are - firstly - that free speech, the value, comes embodied in a principle which forms just one element in a system of political morality; one which - according to liberals at least - ought to be enshrined in law. It comes, if you like, as part of a package. To take just one, albeit prominent, example, in Rawls’s version, the list of “basic liberties” includes “roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law”. Secondly then, note that there is a liberal view of the world reflected in this list, one which portrays citizens who are entitled to live their own lives in their own way, and on the basis of beliefs they have formed for themselves, each confronting the others on free and equal terms. Thirdly, note that the liberal package, in one version or another, tends to come with a rationale, one which invokes a deep level account of human nature, and the fundamental character of human relations. In philosophy, there are celebrated versions of this enterprise to be found in the work of the great liberal writers: Locke, J S Mill, and John Rawls being, I suppose, the most prominent examples.

If this is right, then, fourthly, we have an explanation for why it can be true both that someone has a right to free speech and that he or she would be wrong to exercise it in a particular case. In fact, since having a right to free speech is a matter of there being a certain principle, embodied in a specific system of political morality - and since such principles, by their nature, can only apply in the generality of cases - it would be amazing if there were always a perfect fit between the principle and events out there “in the world”. The Sandilands case is, perhaps, an example where there is no especially good fit. Certainly, it would be hard to argue that, in abusing his journalist critic, he had been exercising “the liberty of thought and discussion”, or “participating in the political decision-making process”, or “speaking truth to power” - these all being reasons which have been advanced, at various times, in support of there being a principle incorporating the right to free speech. On the contrary, there seems to be no especially good reason for defending his “right to speak” in that instance. Even so - and here is the point - that wouldn’t invalidate the case for there being a general principle guaranteeing the right to free speech.

So, my answer to the question of whether the Hebdo attacks were an assault upon freedom of speech is that they were, indeed, just that, but that if you seek an answer by concentrating solely upon tensions which may arise between offenders and offended you are looking in the wrong place. On the contrary, they were an assault on a particular view of the good society, one which views citizens as both equal and free - free, that is, to form their own beliefs and, on the basis of those beliefs, to live their own lives in their own way. It is, I guess, a sense of the threat to that open and liberal view by which the majority of those who demonstrated in Paris, in the wake of the attacks, were motivated. (As for exercising one’s discretion in choosing when to exercise the right there is, I think, a difference when one exercises that right in a context defined by a framework of liberal laws and institutions.)

Finally, could it be that, these days, we have a tendency to underestimate the importance tyrants and dictators can attach to the propagation of myths and stories? Readers of The Philosophers’ Magazine will, of course, be familiar with Plato’s conception of the “noble lie” or “magnificent myth”. In my translation of The Republic it is described as “a fairy story like the poets tell and have persuaded people to believe”. The story is used to persuade the citizens of Plato’s ideal that some were born with gold in their souls, some silver, some bronze or iron, and thereby to do what they’re told by the rulers.

The Hebdo attacks can, I suppose, be seen as an attempt to scare people into conforming to the dictates of a vision, but in this case, one to which most of them do not subscribe. And there are other recent cases. Take that of Kim Jong-il, the late ruler of North Korea, who is on record as having said, “I rule through music and literature”. (I am quoting from Dear Leader, by Jan Jin-Sung, who was a key member of North Korea’s propaganda machine until his defection in 2004. Jan Jin-Sung describes how “every single writer in North Korea produces works according to a chain of command that begins with the Writers’ Union Central Committee of the Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department”. To fail in that is to be guilty of treason. Small wonder then, that the present ruler, Kim Jong-un is angry at the release of a movie, The Interview, which pokes fun at him, apparently threatening his regime by pricking his pomposity. Small wonder, either, that he is (apparently) alarmed at the plans laid by activists in the South to parachute 100,000 copies of the movie, on DVD and USB, into the North. Jokes, it seems, can unsettle despots.