The recent terror attacks in France have, apparently, opened the floodgates for opinions from both sides of the political spectrum on the values and risks of freedom of speech. Across countries and continents, Twitter trolls and Facebook stalkers alike have begun to self-identify as either a French cartoonist, or not-a-French-cartoonist. I find the whole exercise extremely unnerving given the timing, which is why I’m writing this to present a third option to this debate, though admittedly, one which lacks the je-ne-sais-quoi of a trendy hashtag.
Many publications seem to be suggesting that freedom of speech should have some limits when the offence or harm done to individuals so strongly outweighs the validity or purpose of the written or spoken material. The argument is that when an image or statement is inherently hurtful to a particular group, it shouldn’t be allowed only because freedom of speech exists. Without some additional purpose or validity to the offending material, perhaps it is preferable to not antagonize a population by publishing it. This argument has a lot of validity, especially when we consider that many materials that do offend in such a matter are already banned under the label of “hate speech.”
Other publications offer a different point of view, that freedom of speech is an established right which must be rigorously upheld and defended. The view is that this freedom is a fundamental element of democracy, since it allows us to publicly contest opinions we oppose, and promote the opinions for which we stand. The argument of the “jesuischarlie” crowd is, essentially, that an attack on a controversial publication strikes at the most fundamental protections of freedom of speech, the protection of objectionable speech, and cannot be tolerated. The outpouring of support for this perspective likely stems from more general attitudes regarding the importance of liberty and freedom which are pervasive in Western cultures. An attack so directly linked to the destruction of these values can only be expected to result in such an intense pushback.
In reviewing both these arguments, I find them both extremely dissatisfying. In terms of the argument in favour of limiting free speech, my issue is that, if something has not already been labelled as “hate speech,” then that means the democratic society in which the material is disseminated has already accepted the validity of the material. Anyone who opposes the material can launch a court challenge and argue that the material is hateful. To stand up and cry out against the unfairness of offensive material the day after a mass murder is simply taking an opportunistic leap to stand on the supposed moral high ground. Anyone truly opposed to freedom of speech legislation can act on their opinion at any time, but specifically choosing to come forward after a terrorist attack feels inappropriate. If this was an important issue yesterday, it will still be important in a week, so perhaps its best to pay the families of the deceased the respect of waiting a few days before launching into a hashtag frenzy.
As for the other faithful hashtaggers, the “jesuischarlie” crowd, I am equally dissatisfied with the idea that freedom of speech is a blanket in which we should all be constantly wrapped. Freedom of speech has been limited before, and there is no reason to believe that it would be purely detrimental to limit it in the future. I can understand the value of showing support for the families of those who were viciously murdered by Islamic radicals, but that support should not be a front for the promotion of a specific view regarding the reach of a civil liberty. It is possible to show solidarity against terrorism without being a crusader for unlimited free speech, and I firmly believe that the message would actually come across better without the context in which it currently is being disseminated. Saying free speech shouldn’t be limited after the brutal murder of an editorial team is almost too easy to be truly impactful. Those who wish to promote an unlimited view of free speech are choosing the easiest possible example to push forward their view. Promoting the viewpoint outside last week’s context is a much more difficult task, but one that would likely lead to far more substantial results.
The debate over free speech is not playing out in a courtroom or legislative chamber, but rather, on Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. Yes, it is nice that technology allows us to interact and share opinions on a global scale, but the problem is that too often those opinions can be easily labeled. Informed debate requires acknowledgment and analysis of all the points that contribute to a debate. By camping out under a specific opinion (or hashtag), one inevitably discounts the validity of other opinions. For this reason I would like to offer a third, somewhat-of-a-cop-out, opinion on the debate over free speech: that this isn’t the time.
Simply put, whatever end of the free speech spectrum you are on, you should not allow terrorism to dictate when you come forward. Sure, the international press coverage makes things convenient, but I hesitate to think we should be going any further than condemning terrorism after this attack. To use the event as a gateway into the societal debate over free speech is essentially allowing a terrorist to decide when we discuss an important societal issue. Personally, I’d rather we don’t base the timing of this important debate on some murderous lunatic’s rampage. Now is the time to give our sympathy and support to the families of the deceased, to question and review security policy, and to look into the societal causes for the terrorist acts. It is not the time to promote our own moral superiority or outrage.
Don’t get me wrong, I admit that the extent (or limit) of free speech is a societal cause for what happened. I have also seen reference to Western colonial history as a cause for the attacks. However, I would suggest that neither of these links should be grasped too tightly. Looking at the societal causes for terrorism, should the focus not be on what drove the individual to a mental, emotional, and financial position from which he thought an act of terrorism was a positive course of action? Should we not concern ourselves with what is driving individuals to this state, rather than focusing on the reasonableness of the demands they make once they’re there? As for the idea that these acts of terrorism can be explained through history, I would argue that looking at colonial history gives valuable warnings, but should not be used as a vessel for Westerners to apologize for every global event. Writing off terrorist attacks as a result of colonialism does nothing to solve current issues, and takes the lessons of history beyond their value, turning them into a roadmap for all opinions and analysis. Like the larger debate over free speech, history is only one relevant factor in an extremely complex issue.
Though it is always important to be reviewing and improving social policy, it is equally important to vigilantly protect our established rights and freedoms. Balancing between these two societal objectives requires careful thought, analysis and evaluation, and a long-term commitment to progressing democratic values. The aftermath of a brutal and tragic massacre is, in my opinion, simply not the appropriate time to put freedom of speech through the socio-political wringer. When a tragedy like this occurs, I hope we can in the future stick more closely to the things we can all agree on, like that it should never have happened, and should never happen again.