Lots of people are talking about talking. Or communication in the form of journalistic satire. A terrible thing happened, we can all agree on that, and thus the conversation got started about what is okay to say, and what should perhaps not be said, and whether or not not saying something because it is likely to offend is bad because it is self-censorship, and censorship is bad. Maybe.
France that bastion of free expression and speech doesn’t let you say just whatever you want. There are laws that were enacted following World War II that prohibit saying certain things about Nazi’s and Jews and Hitler. It is not okay to say certain things, they say, because it is toxic hate-speech that as we have seen from our past experience can lead to terrible things. It’s true that. The pen can indeed wild great power: persuasion, psychological imprinting, opinion. If you say a Jew is a dirty rat enough times, and you draw a picture of a Jew looking like a dirty rat enough times it is possible for enough people to start to feel like their once lovely neighbor is perhaps not so lovely and there are things about them they don’t particularly like and they don’t really know what but maybe the country is better off without them. And maybe the world. And then look where we are. By the way it works to insert the name of any group you don’t like so you see – pictures in the wrong hands can be dangerous stuff!
So then the question becomes what is humor? What is satire? What is political opinion? What is hate-speech? We know that the cartoons that are at the center of the current conversation were not propaganda because they were not produced by a government authority. So okay, that means they are just general speech right, and as such in any country, in any society that values freedom they should be permitted because we don’t want to stifle freedom. People in a free society can say whatever they like, no matter how hateful, because that is one of the hallmarks of freedom. If you don’t like it, don’t listen.
We had this conversation twenty years ago in a Civil Rights, Civil Liberties class I took in law school. Fifteen or so very smart people sat around for two hours and argued about the principals of free speech based on our laws and the interpretations thereof by our courts. At one point during the discussion I said, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” From there we were off onto the topic of self-censorship which is also being much talked about today. People will stop drawing these kinds of cartoons because they will be afraid of the consequences, people will stop challenging extremism because they fear for their lives. I don’t know that this is true, at least that last bit.
I am very saddened by the loss of life that occurred in France. Both for those who worked for the magazine and for those who were killed in related anti-semitic attacks. I am also very saddened by the anti-Muslim activities that are taking place. Not anti-extremist, anti-Muslim – let’s be clear and honest. Pig heads being thrown into mosques attended by French citizens. Cartoons being drawn depicting Muslims, all Muslims of being terrorists, inhuman, horrible. I am saddened by the fact that satire is an excuse for depicting something sacred to a majority of kind, law-abiding, god and goodness loving people as an object of derision.
The right to say what we want, to think what we want, to argue our political, religious, environmental, our whatever issues freely is so much of what it means to be free. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. That is self-censorship, that is deciding when it is better to keep your mouth shut because you will offend people and. as I asked in my class many years ago, ‘isn’t there another way to get your point across or to make your statement without having to be hurtful?’ Maybe freedom means we also take the time to consider and make a choice.