Yesterday in Niger: five people died in protests following Charlie Hebdo’s most recent cover featuring Mohammed. More unrest is expected today.
Let me be very clear at the beginning of an article that will likely be misinterpreted by the grieving and incensed: I am in no way adding a “but” to the notion of Freedom of Speech. It is a pillar of democratic society. No buts allowed.
The word I’d like to insert into the conversation is “and.”
Freedom of Speech is a crucial liberty and we must take responsibility for the consequences of that freedom.
It shouldn’t feel like a novel concept. We see it applied in headlines and editorials every day. We hold anti-abortion groups responsible for inflaming the passions that end with murdered abortionists. We hold intolerant parents responsible for the suicide of their transgendered children. We hold drunk drivers responsible for the lives they destroy. We hold Christians responsible for anti-gay violence.
On basic humanitarian principles, we demand that these groups and individuals consider the consequences of the stances they take and the provocative power of the words they utter.
Still, we support a publication like Charlie Hebdo without caveats, a magazine whose cartoons graphically depict Jesus masturbating, the Pope prostituting himself and Mohammed engaged in sodomy. Even the young Boko Haram victims have been drawn, pregnant and angry, demanding government handouts. That’s good for a belly laugh…right? Consequences be damned.
Don’t get me wrong: in our modern Western world, Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish drawings few magazines would ever reprint because they’re too pornographic and incendiary for public viewing. And as a compassionate people, we want to support the rare unity displayed in Parisian streets. We want to stand with the families of those who lost loved ones. Rightfully so. Nobly so.
But we must also beware that our show of solidarity doesn’t amount to an endorsement of hate-speech masquerading as cartoons.
We must stop canonizing the staff of Charlie Hebdo. Standing against their murders must not be equated with standing for their drawings. That’s a conflation I’m seeing more and more, and it worries me. They routinely published vile, racist cartoons intended to provoke outrage and knew it might lead to their own deaths. (See here) It has now led to loss of lives in a kosher market and in villages in Niger too.
There are no excuses for the murders that occurred. None at all—that’s on the terrorists and only on them. AND (not “but”) we need to have a conversation about the responsibility of those who distribute materials intended to insult and provoke unrest. It’s not an argument for censorship, it’s a plea for self-imposed high standards, compassion and civility.
Charlie Hebdo exercised its freedom of speech. What it failed to recognize is the importance of responsibility.
Did Charlie Hebdo arm the African arsonists with the machetes and lighters they used to destroy entire villages yesterday? No. No more than anti-abortion proponents supplied the bomb to the man who killed the doctor. No more than the parents of that transgendered teen strung the rope she used to hang herself. Yet we still wish they had been more responsible when measuring the actions that precipitated the tragedy.
Not so with Charlie Hebdo. We cheer them on to become even more offensive. Stick it to the detractors! Publish more profane, more graphic, more insulting cartoons!
Am I the only one who sees the hypocrisy here? And the danger?
Freedom of speech can become a narcissistic thing, even when it portends to illuminate injustice or bring fallacy to light. Responsibility, on the other hand, forces us to consider the repercussions of the words we choose. It forces us to tap into our humanity and compassion when rebellion might foster excesses that will endanger others.
We cannot regulate or control outcomes. That is a fact. But we have a responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions and then to weigh our freedom against the harm it may cause others. Period.
It’s called conscience and it’s called compassion.
For all its bravery, Charlie Hebdo lacks both.
So though I am French, I am not Charlie.
- I don’t believe racism becomes noble when it’s displayed as satire.
- I don’t believe the right to print hate-drawings is worth the loss of life.
- I don’t think my liberty is more important than the dignity and safety of others.
I do believe in responsible discourse—high standards and strong convictions—ferocious disagreements and dignified debates.
Freedom of speech and an eye on consequences.
Liberty and responsibility.
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