Ever since I became aware of the murders of the Charlie Hebdo employees, I have been reflecting on the notion of freedom of speech. When I lived in Europe, I would regularly come across their weekly and their outrageous covers always caught my attention. Outrageous is an understatement when describing many of their covers. I wasn’t particularly interested in the magazine but it was the outrageousness of the covers that caught my attention. However, I never took the time actually pick up the magazine. As a matter of fact, I had forgotten about the publication until I read about the murders.
As a blogger, I’m supportive of the notion of freedom of speech. It is outrageous for me to know that individuals were murdered because of how they expressed themselves. In a knee jerk reaction, to the seething anger within me for the murders, I started to draw different cartoons aimed at radicalized Muslims that appear to have led to the murders. I have a cursory understanding of Islam, however I have known for some time now that in their religion it is blasphemous to depict Muhammad in media.
Angrily I drew different versions depicting the prophet. However as my anger subsided I began to reflect on the notion of freedom of expression.
I have no doubt that humanity is better when everyone is allowed to fully express themselves as they see fit. I do not like some of the expressions I encounter but nonetheless I applaud the freedom to express. However, freedom of expression should always be tempered against the rights of people to live their lives unimpeded by individuals intent on harming them through directed attacks against their beliefs. Make no mistake; a pen can be a weapon that can be wielded to injure someone for their beliefs. For example, if I were to write that certain segments of society do not have the right to vote because they do not have a job it would be hurtful to someone. If my expression were to somehow be turned into a law then it has become a weapon targeted at certain individuals.
The most commonly used example of how freedom of expression can be abused is the example of yelling fire in a crowded theater. The problem, though, is that limiting the right to freely express oneself is a slippery slope towards impeding the freedom of expression. It easily becomes an issue of whose standards or moral compass are we to use when limiting the right to express oneself.
Almost all countries have some limits on freedom of expression, some more than others do. For example, in many parts of Europe, including France, it is illegal to display the Nazi symbol. I abhor the results of Nazism, as I do the murders of the Charlie Hebdo employees but the Nazi symbol is nothing more than an expression. As I got ready to publish one of my cartoons, I remembered the words of Benito Juárez who told us “the respect of others equals peace.” [I paraphrased this]
As I thought about this, I soon realized that my cartoons were not attacking the killers but a whole religion. Was this something that I really intended to do? Was my anger directed at an entire religion or was it directed at some radicals that have bastardized a religion for their own selfish reasons? More importantly, did I have a right to attack a whole religion because of the actions of a few?
Strictly from the notion of the right to freedom of expression, I have no doubt in my mind that I have the right to draw or write what I want even if it directly hurts a religion. You see, in my mind, it does not matter what the message is but rather that it be allowed to be expressed by anyone however they want to express it. The moment we start to impose limits on the right to express oneself is the moment that the slippery slope starts to collapse leading to ending the fundamental right to express oneself. When you give someone the authority to put limits on freedom of speech, it empowers that individual to impose their viewpoint on what is acceptable and what is not.
On the other hand, it is important to understand that freedom of expression can be a dangerous thing. The yelling of “fire” in a crowded area is a perfect example of this. It is a perfect example because it clearly shows different issues on the notion of limiting expression. In the example of the fire, it is not about the yelling “fire” that is the crime but rather the consequence of the people that are hurt as a result of the chaos caused by lying about a fire. Notice that I wrote “lying” because if there is an actual fire it is unlikely that the person yelling “fire” would be prosecuted even if deaths were to occur but rather they would likely be hailed as a hero.
How does this tie into the Charlie Hebdo example?
Depicting Muhammad in media is not a lie. Is it intended to hurt a group of individuals? Of course it is. However, it is not a lie. This, of course, leads us to the notion of speech leading to injuries. In the case of yelling “fire” in a crowded place, the likely result is injuries and possible death. It can be argued that depicting Muhammad has led to death and obviously injuries. Therefore, what is the difference? There is none.
Yelling “fire” in a crowded place or drawing Muhammad are both intended to injure someone. There is no disputing that fact. That eliminates that argument of “intent.” Then why do I support jailing someone who lies about a fire in a crowded place but not someone who draws Muhammad in violation of a religious doctrine? They are both intended to be injurious. The argument of one thing being a lie cannot be used here either because there are those that would argue that Muhammad is a lie, or that the prohibition against drawing him is a lie.
Does this make me a hypocrite for supporting jailing someone for crying “fire” in a crowded theater but not someone who draws Muhammad for the sake of attacking a religion? Fundamentally, it does because on one hand I want someone jailed for causing chaos for yelling “fire” while advocating the right of Charlie Hebdo to mock a religion. It is an extremely complex issue and one I do not have the answer to and probably never will.
When it comes to conundrums like these, I tend to defer to my own moral compass. In my case, I decided not to publish my Muhammad cartoons not because I support the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo employees but because I really have no reason to attack a religion because of the actions of a few. Some would ask then what about the murderers that killed the magazine’s staff. Why should they be hunted down and hanged? Because, although most have wrapped the manhunt around the notion of impeding someone’s free expression the fact is that they committed a crime by taking lives.
I believe the killers are where they belong and I have no qualms about drawing them, discussing them or even wishing them in hell. As far as I am concerned, our world is better because they have been banished from it.
Although I am not going to publish my cartoons, I understand that my moral compass should not be the guiding light for everyone else and therefore I do not wish to impose it on everyone else. For this reason, I fully support and encourage Charlie Hebdo to publish its expected 3 million copies tomorrow.
I anxiously look forward to seeing the cover even though I probably would be aghast by it.