The world stood in shock this 7th January, 2015. Just another working day at a controversial satirical magazine in France, since long under the threat of terrorist attack for its provocative publishing of religious caricatures. Jihadists seeking revenge step into the editorial office and unload their Kalashnikovs all around, killing in cold blood. They will take other souls as well by the end of a mad man hunt that kept us all breathless for hours. Whether at work or in my car, I kept following the live broadcast of the developing events, chewing nervously one M&M after the other. The reporters shout whenever they receive ground-breaking information on the background of ambulance sirens or the sounds of hovering helicopters. Tension at its highest. We’re living exceptional times in terms of media coverage.
The tragedy triggered immediate international reaction and naturally united people in support of the victims and against all forms of terrorism. To which I wholeheartedly adhere. There have been a lot of talks including religious and immigration problems and the inherent responsibility of the States towards their minorities, lack of integration, etc. – in the heat of the moment, sensitive issues come to light. In this need for people to stick together, an idea worth militating for becomes the symbol people rush to hang on to: freedom of speech.
What happened is indescribably unjust, and there’s no discussion about that. But I watched the crowd campaigning for this emerging “Je suis Charlie” ideology and I grew worried. I’m sorry, but I cannot partake in a tendency in which freedom of speech is promoted as the liberty to say whatever, even when it offends and gravely disrespects others. While I express solidarity with all victims and their families and I am as outraged as any that such cruelty should take place, it would be hypocritical of me to pretend that now, all of a sudden, I defend what Charlie Hebdo was publishing under the label of freedom of speech.
Since when is freedom of speech an excuse for insulting people, cultures, religions that are clearly largely misunderstood and disrespected? Since when does the press, a major influencer on people’s minds and reactions nowadays (and by God, not everyone is an intellectual) has the right to provoke gratuitously when it comes to such sensitive topics as religion on the grounds that it is funny? Who of you who were out on the streets defending this kind of freedom of speech has truly laughed at the magazine’s caricatures back in the days? And should the press not better use its overwhelming power by being informative, instructive, meaningful, and let me push it a bit further, naively, maybe even play a role in appeasing racial/religious climate in a country where it is already tensed instead of literally opening a gate towards more conflicts and hatred and add fuel to the fire? Is that what freedom of speech has come down to and is that what people feel the need to defend nowadays?
Sad, if so. I am all for the freedom of speech, but there are also limits that should be self-imposed and that belong to common-sense and sensitivity towards those around us. If we decide to act selfishly and disregard issues that other cultures have deeply at heart by openly holding them up to ridicule, doesn’t it mean that we abuse our access to freedom of speech? Why not harm others with words and images just because we can? I was first taught “relevancy” when I started to write. If there’s a message, make sure it comes across. But what is the underlying purpose of saying that “Le Coran c’est de la merde?” I fear the freedoms that have been passed on to us are being largely misused and misunderstood nowadays and that everyone cries “freedom of speech” far too easily. Offending the other on the grounds of being funny is not something I can be supportive of.
I stand up for free press. The press that understands its power and stops feeding your kids with information they don’t need to see or hear. The press that knows it is strong enough to influence politics and decision-makers. That fights for the right cause not that keeps itself busy spreading fear, chaos, that brainwashes the audience and shows disrespect for the others simply because provocation sells well.
Forgive me, but I do happen to believe that press has a responsibility towards readers, citizens. Hence what you say demands a fair balance of information and reason. Press should not become just another example of cultural ignorance. Freedom of speech should be taken with moderation and respect. Otherwise, paradoxically, the freedoms we have come to acquire will only enhance chaos. I have a friend in China who could tell me a word or two about how precious the right to freedom of speech is. Use it well. Ultimately, maybe an inherent part of the freedom of speech is also the freedom to realize when it’s a good moment to remain silent.
P.S. I’m sure that if we all were to take the streets and march against every single bomb that blows up in other corners of the world as well and against the fact that to date roughly 805 million people struggle with hunger, we would have a much better world.