The horrible terrorist attacks in France these last few days has led to a lot of comment and controversy especially around the issue of free speech/expression. I was unaware of this magazine, Charlie Hebdo, until this incident. But a lot of the commentary on the issue, both in India and elsewhere, has been in my view quite misplaced. The key issue is what, if any, are the limits of freedom of speech/expression. This touches also on another recent case, the initial decision of Sony to stop the release of their movie, the Interview, because of threats, reportedly from the North Korean regime. My random thoughts, set out below.
Charlie Hebdo is known for lampooning religion, religious figures as well as political and other leaders. A lot of commentary has focused on the obscene and offensive nature of these cartoons and Charlie Hebdo’s particular brand of satire. Many of these cartoons have been about Islam but many have also been about other religions, though the primary target appears to have been French politics and politicians.
The argument in a lot of the commentary has been that while freedom of speech/expression should be protected, Charlie Hebdo has crossed the line (though none of the folks I saw on TV or whose columns I read suggested that killing is an appropriate response). The argument even among some ‘liberals’, especially but not only in India, appear to be that free speech should also be responsible speech and that you should not deliberately offend.
I strongly disagree. I would argue that Charlie Hebdo has not crossed any line, simply because that line should limit only very few speech/expressions. As far as I am concerned, these prohibitions should be limited to that speech/expression that are likely to lead to physical injury to other people and some other exceptional cases such as child pornography. In the former category, there is no free speech right to incite violence against others in your society and you have no right to free speech/expression when it might lead to physical harm to others, even if it is not deliberate, such as the well-known example of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre or other cases such as phoning in a fake bomb threat to a passenger airplane or other public carrier/places. The right to free speech/expression also should not cover giving false testimony in front of a court or public vulgarity [OK, a bit iffy but you definitely should not have a right to walk in the buff in public]. None of these are or should be protected by the right to free speech/expression. But outside of these, liberal societies should allow all speech/expression, even if they are offensive and/or vulgar. And liberal societies should be judged by how far they trespass on these rights.
I accept that by these standards, even the French (and most continental European) laws on free speech/expression fall short, in that there are unnecessary restrictions, such as a prohibition on Holocaust denial and on wearing the veil or indeed any visible symbols of religion in French schools. But this hypocrisy is irrelevant to my point. These societies fall short by my standard but that does excuse the attack on Charles Hebdo.
The European restrictions on free speech/expressions are unnecessary and unacceptable. Even if I do not agree with the people expressing themselves in such manner, I fully accept their right to express themselves in this manner. I have no doubts about the Holocaust, but to ban those who – even for reasons of hatred – dispute that the Holocaust occurred appears to me to be unacceptable. Indeed, banning such expressions give holders of such absurd opinion unnecessary importance and publicity.
Similarly, I agree with those who criticize the veil as a symbol of women’s subjugation, but banning it potentially robs at least some women their choice of wearing the veil as a conscious expression of either protest or religious or ethnic identity. (But I agree that those who decide to veil themselves have no right to refuse to take them off when asked to do so for legitimate purposes by legitimate authorities, such as at passport controls).
I also disagree with the argument that hate speech should be banned (unless they directly incite violence). I may not like or accept hate speech but freedom of speech/expression mean nothing unless it protects unpleasant views or views that we disagree with. Even racists and other haters should have the right to free speech/expression, unless they directly incite violence. Don’t agree with them, but don’t prohibit it either.
The reason for adopting such a stance is that anything short will become a slippery slope that will eventually lead to the situation we have in India, where all it takes for a book or movie to be banned, or for an artist to be exiled, is for someone to protest that their feelings have been hurt. But the problem is that Indian liberals do not take a categorical position, protesting when right-wing morons attack paintings or books but staying essentially silent or talking about ‘responsible speech’ when some cartoonist is targeted because his humour was insensitive.
A final point which touches on whose responsibility it is to protect these rights: it is the state’s responsibility, not that of private companies, whether they are publishers or movie studios. President Obama blaming Sony for withdrawing ‘the Interview’ falls in the same category as Indian liberals blaming some publisher or the other for withdrawing a book under threat of violence. If he wanted to protect free speech, President Obama should have offered to buy the movie and distribute it freely on YouTube and Indian’s who protest against publishers should ask the government to print such books. I am not holding my breath though: great, free, democratic India still has a state-run ‘Censor Board’ which decides what movie scenes I, an adult but an obvious mental invalid, can watch. And I may be mistaken, but I have yet to hear of any protest about this absurdity.