Freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas using one’s body and property to anyone who is willing to receive them. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously, but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used. Wikipedia
The newspapers have been full of articles about the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. I haven’t heard or read one single voice that didn’t make this to be exclusively about freedom of speech. We had the same debate in 2005. The Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten asked 40 cartoonists then to draw the prophet Muhammad. They received 14 drawings and published them under the name “the face of Muhammad.” This started when an author of a children’s book about Muhammad had problems finding an illustrator that was willing to do the job. The most famous of these drawings showed the prophet with a bomb in his turban. This was of course criticised in the Muslim world, and it also resulted in Denmark being the target of several minor terrorist acts that failed.
The cartoonist behind this particular caricature received threats, but he was defended by a united media, and media outlets all over Europe, including Charlie Hebdo, published his drawing. I’m not ok with the Muslims killing anyone over this, but we know how this is going to provoke Muslims, probably aided by terrorists using this in their propaganda. There will always be groups, Muslims or someone pretending to be, that use publications like this to promote their hate. This shouldn’t stop us, but I still ask myself: Do these drawings give us new knowledge? Do they expose a hidden truth or some sinister, clandestine plan? This is where it feels wrong for me. I don’t think this is necessary. It just seems petty to me, and reminds me of the caricatures of African Americans during Jim Crow and of Jews later.
Now we are getting this debate again. After 12 people working at the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed a couple of days ago, Norwegian newspapers have been calling this the worst attack on free speech ever, and they are saying that we must not let the terrorists silence the media (I believe the boardrooms of the media outlets are doing a thorough enough job of that themselves). The truth is that this magazine has challenged the boundaries of free speech for years, and becaue of their fight against Islam Le Pen’s party National Front has supported them.
This raises an interesting question. Do we want a freedom of speech completely without boundaries? I am in favour of free speech. I have defended this idea on my blog, and I have critiized authorities for restricting freedom of expression. Nevertheless, I believe we need some restrictions. These exists in most countries, some of them are meant to stop slander and the spread of hatred. In this case, media seems to juxtapose these caricatures with journalism exposing for example a paedophile-ring or corrupt politicians. I believe there is a vast difference, and in this case they might be spreading ideas that at best sharpen the distrust and hate between us and the Muslims. It wouldn’t help to ban these expressions, but I don’t think this is the right way to challenge the restrictions most countries have on free speech.
Incidentally, I discovered a programme on Animal Planet tonight. It showed the wildlife in the Middle East. It struck me, why don’t we ever see the Middle East in a positive light? Maybe we could use some of our freedom of speech to tell the stories we never hear about. We might find that we like it, and them. Perhaps that’s the problem because it might make us uneasy.
We are talking about something that is recognized as a human right. I don’t want to take this away from anyone, but do we have to encourage this pettiness?