In January 2015, two armed terrorists attacked the office of a popular French weekly magazine named “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris, France. Twelve people, including the chief editor at the time, were shot by assault rifles. Two weeks later, an Islamic terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda based in Yemen, took responsibility for the attack which, along with an attack that took place in 2011, were acts of revenge for the public dissemination of a satirical cartoon that targeted Muslims and poked fun at the prophet Muhammad. Such acts of violence aimed at Charlie Hebdo, especially the most one, are viewed by many as a direct violation of people’s right to freedom of speech. As Voltaire stated, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Defending an individual’s right to freedom of speech is strongly respected by most modern societies. As such, many people view the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack as heroes and martyrs for the cause of free speech. However, proponents of free speech decry the fact that Charlie Hebdo victims had to pay the price of death for exercising their right to. Conversely, critics argue that insulting the tenets and beliefs of a religious group represented an abuse of free speech. Regardless, people all over the world vehemently denounced the violent actions perpetrated by al-Qaeda. This incident points to the reality that free speech can be quite harmful, and it can even be a form of violence. In a show of ideological solidarity, a litany of European newspapers emulated Charlie Hebdo and disseminated cartoons that satirized the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, which incurred the ire of Muslims spanning the globe. Although taking the life of another can never be justified, critics argue that ridiculing the beliefs of others and satirizing certain cultural conventions also constitute a bloodless form of violence. By examining the harm caused by freedom can help politicians and leaders to develop a solution to prevent it from yielding more negative results and adverse consequences.
It is unequivocal that liberalism as a political ideology is not culturally neutral. Charles Taylor, a renowned philosopher, described liberalism as a “fighting creed” that faces a litany of challenges as a result of cultural exigencies (Taylor 25). Within the context of modernity, liberals have increasingly rendered it necessary to publically assert the credibility of their ideology within a dyadic view of the political world as a clash of civilizations that has pitted the West against the Islamic world. The clash between Enlightenment epistemologies and those rooted in fundamentalism have propelled liberals to call on their advocates to declare the supremacy of liberalism. Thus, freedom of speech has emerged as the post palatable issue that has caused a global controversy. Violence has erupted throughout the Middle East and has caused numerous deaths and an outbreak of mass protests traversing the continent of Europe. This recent episode of the limitations of freedom of speech reflects the storm of violence and protests that were triggered in the 1980s when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was published. As such, the controversy over the issue of self-censorship arose with the controversy caused by the political cartoons. While most of the observers and chroniclers did not argue that Charlie Hebdo and other European newspapers possessed the legal right to publish the political cartoons regarding of how offensive its content was, what emerged was the necessity to recognized and take into account the offense caused by publishing and disseminating certain material. As The Guardian conveyed, many liberals believed that a person can believe “uncompromisingly in the freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend” (The Guardian). Thus, liberals unequivocally speak out for the value of freedom of expression, decrying the capitulation of certain periodicals to the demands of political correctness and multiculturalism. However, critics view the invocation of free speech as a means to being overtly racist and distasteful.
While freedom of speech is an important right afforded to denizens living in democratic nations, it is also not absolute, as it has its limitations. Laws are passed to prevent harm, including harm inflicted on individuals and/or groups through words. As such, politicians and philosophes must reconcile the value of freedom of speech with the objective of law to prevent harm. Freedom is valuable, yet it can also be quite harmful, especially if abused. According to Issiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”, “[Freedom] is both surprising and dangerous” (Berlin1). Berlin discusses how freedom of speech can be surprising, yet it also retains many hidden risks because of its potency as a fundamental liberal value. Freedom can influence and encourage the public by some brilliant ideas, but it is also dangerous because consequences of unconsciously using free speech can yield bad results. For individuals, freedom of speech enhances a person’s self-esteem because people are able to express their personal opinions and fight for the confirmation of their ideas. Besides that, people develop their social responsibility with the freedom of speech since they are able to express their opinions regarding social and political issues that are relevant to epochal contingencies. At the macro level, new ideas are necessary for the development and progress of society. People who have the right to free speech and expression are able to offer their advice to and views of the economic industry, develop culture, and supervise their governments. However, it is also important to realize the fact that the power of free speech can also inflict serious harm..
Rob Boston claimed in his journal entitled “The Right To be Rude”: “I would extend that advice to all religions by reminding them that people have an absolute right to mock, ridicule, poke fun at and satirize anyone's deeply held beliefs. Learn to live with it”(Boston). However, it is a reality that not everyone will respect the value of free speech, as it has often been abused. Thus, not everyone embraced Voltaire’s initiative of “[defending] to death your right to say it”. Boston further asserts that “people living in nations where there is no tradition of (or legal protection for) free speech might not honor them”(Boston). Thus, it cannot be denied that there are people everywhere who do not honor freedom of speech, as they take offense to certain publications or images that depict certain religions, societies, and cultures in a pejorative manner. As such, periodicals, organizations, and individuals alike must become cognizant of using free speech in a way that is quite harmful and yields debilitating results.
In the terrifying massacre waged against a Danish newspaper ordered and financed by Al Qaeda, twelve people were brutally harmed, six of them eventually losing their lives. Behind the crucial murder, many critics have ignored the fact that the recent gun shooting occurred in January 2015 was not the first attack that targeted Charlie Hebdo. According to the news coverage, the “Charlie Hebdo Attack: 2011 Firebomb Over Prophet Mohammed” issue of The Telegraph UK, in November 2011, Charlie Hebdo had been attacked by a petrol bomb. About “the magazine, which had a long-established record of Islam-based jokes,” the author of Olive Duggan also mentioned that “they had already provoked criticism and security warnings as early as 2006, when the editor published Mohammed cartoons by a Danish artist that lamented fundamentalist violence”(Duggan). As a responsible public media, which had experienced multiple times of warnings and threats, the cartoonists and editor of Charlie Hebdo should had realized the risk of using their right to free speech by ridiculing a religious group years ago. A bloody terrorist attack predicated on religious offense can never be justified, and those who were murdered in these attacks were not portrayed as heroes to many but rather as rightful victims for abusing their use of free speech and the freedom of expression.
When these victims who worked for Charlie Hebdo case are discussed in public discourses in western societies, they are discursively framed as heroes and martyrs for sacrificing their lives while defending their fundamental right to free speech. The question arises, however, whether or not they are indeed heroes. In his journal Victims, Not Heroes, William T. Cavanaugh criticizes the Charlie Hebdo periodical for “running cartoons of women being gang raped as ‘entertainment.” Cavanaugh further claimed that “one does not become a hero simply by offending people” (Cavanaugh). According to Sociology book Think, conflict theorists suggest that power is unequally distributed in respective societies (Carl). Compared to most religious groups, social media outlets such as Charlie Hebdo obviously have louder voices of expression in public. However, purposely offending others in such a public and diffuse manner constitutes a bloodless form of violence. Although the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre did not deserve to die, the episode nonetheless contests the notion that their offensive publication was a form of public defense of free speech and freedom of expression. Moreover, the case of Charlie Hebdo implies that newspapers are required to publish certain cartoons as a public manifestation of free speech. Conservatives decry how liberals confuse free speech with the notion that offensiveness as necessary to imbue the freedom of expression with more currency and meaning. Such a vision is impervious to the idea that accommodating any consideration for certain offenses is antithetical to the right to express themselves freely. Such insensitivity and crudeness evident in the publication of the Mohammed cartoons thus emerged as direct manifestation of the liberal view of free speech. As such, there is an unequivocal trade-off between multiculturalism and liberalism considered to be political values. Indeed, conservatives argue that the liberal political moral canon demands a regime of free expression and free speech that remains ambivalent towards political, cultural, and religious considerations. Such fallacious logic however nonetheless underscores the potential harm that free speech retains. Liberal principles suggest the possibility of democratic nations to enact and preserve a doctrine of free speech that takes into consideration political and multicultural concerns without losing its liberal character.
In the cogent monograph entitled Freedom of Speech and Its Limits, Wojciech Sadurski discusses the dilemma posed by the freedom of speech. He points out that people have struggled to fully practice their right to express themselves as a result of censorship policies passed under certain extenuating circumstances. However, the power can be also developed into a form of violence. Religious sensitivity evident in the case of Charlie Hebdo is not the only concern that inhere the fundamental conflicts posed by free speech. The strongly protected issue—sexual orientation—serves as another relevant example. While some people are rightly using their freedom of speech to work against homosexuality, they ignore the fact that within liberal epistemologies individuals possess the freedom to choose their sexual orientation, as homosexual people also have the right to enjoy equality like everyone else. It may be necessary to establish a stringent borderline between protected speech and unprotected speech. Hate speech can be separated with protected speech and should be prohibited on various grounds such as sex, race and religion (Heinze). In some European countries, hate speech can lead to legal penalties, as Maleiha Malik states that “the [European Court of Human Rights] accepts that a sufficiently narrow hate speech statute will not necessarily breach the right to freedom of speech Words and voice do have weight, individuals and organizations really should be responsible for what do they act and speak” (Malik). Furthermore, Sadurski mentions that, “confronted with a demand for a uniform standard of protection of all speech, law would inevitably respond by lowering the degree of protection across the board” overly protecting all kinds of speech will not help defending the freedom of speech (Sadurski).
Freedom of speech is valuable, and the right of expression should be protected all over the world. However, people must remain cognizant of the consequences that this freedom can sometimes be very harmful and nefarious. The consequences of using free speech can be unpredictable, and it is impossible to protect all kinds of speech. A department or a group of people can judge the legitimacy of speeches may be necessary for the society. More importantly, individuals and organizations, especially social media, are supposed to learn to use their freedom of speech consciously. Drawing the line on offensive speech remains a nebulous and contested issue, which the controversy over the dissemination of the political cartoons points out. Newspaper editors around the world were not ethically or morally right when they published satirical cartoons of Mohammed. The scope of public expression unequivocally must defer to the prerogative and ethics of good taste as cultural and political considerations. Doing so does not always force newspapers and other media outlets to abandon political correctness and multiculturalism. Moreover, liberal precepts do not mandate that free speech is the only value that should be prized at the exclusion of other prerogatives. As such, it is clear that free speech is not absolute and does not have intrinsic currency. Rather, its currency is derived from the value of autonomy in itself because autonomy illuminates the interests embedded within free speech. Beyond the freedom of public expression and cultural accommodations, the central issue of this debate is how governments should adjudicate allowing for the dissemination of offensive speech that might thwart the conditions of autonomy and ability to fully participate society on the one hand, and curtailing free speech at the expense of detracting from the autonomy of individuals on the other. As such, the state must regulate speech in the cases of offense in order to prevent possible violence and hard that poses the specter of tearing civilized society asunder.
Berlin, Isaiah. "Two concepts of liberty." Berlin, I (1969): 118-172.
Boston, Rob. "THE RIGHT TO BE RUDE." The Humanist 75.2 (2015): 36-7. ProQuest. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.
Carl, John D. Think. Boston: Pearson, 2011. Print.
Cavanaugh, William T. "Victims, Not Heroes." Commonweal 142.3 (2015): 8. ProQuest. Web. 24 Mar. 2015
Duggan, Oliver. “Charlie Hebdo attack: 2011 firebomb over Prophet Mohammed Issue” The elegraph.co.uk. Web. 07 Jan 2015.
Malik, Maleiha. "Religious Freedom, Free Speech and Equality: Conflict Or Cohesion?" Res Publica 17.1 (2011): 21-40. ProQuest. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
Sadurski, Wojciech. Freedom of speech and its limits. Vol. 38. Springer Science & Business Media, 1999.
Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition,” in Amy Guttman (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.