Free speech has limits

The Thinker by Rodin

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.