Friday, February 6, 2015

Freedom of speech

 Although I published a volume several years ago on freedom of speech in the 18th century (Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea), and even discussed that work on this blog, I haven't felt drawn to comment on the events of January 7 in Paris. That is, until I came across the above image on the internet.

In the heated history of freedom of speech in the past couple of centuries, Voltaire is often quoted on the subject, along with J.S. Mill. Voltaire did not utter the quote misattributed to him ("I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it"), but he and Mill have been considered something like founding fathers of the doctrine. In light of this year's events, I wonder if Voltaire would really be so brave.

One had to admire Charlie Hebdo for being so fearless back in 2006; it was one of the few publications to stand behind the right to insult a holy cow by reprinting the so-called Mohammed cartoons. But was admiration really the right feeling? If freedom of speech is so sacrosanct, why weren't truly major publications equally fearless? In the U.S. that would include the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Self-censorship by BLU
By 2006, however, self-censorship and circumspection toward Islam were the order of the day. The Times, for instance, did not reprint the cartoons, which in any case circulated widely on the internet.
Interestingly, the Times article on February 8, 2006, was accompanied by a photograph of Chris Ofili's offending painting of the Virgin covered with cow dung. Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, hailed the “sensitivity” of Fleet Street in not reprinting the cartoons. PEN, the organization of writers that "works to defend freedom of expression and resist censorship worldwide" (as per its website), restricted itself to holding forums in New York in the spring of 2006 to explore the question whether there should be limits on the right of speech and artistic expression. Yale University Press decided to omit the cartoons from its 2009 publication on the controversy, The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klaussen. So, why quote Voltaire, if inaccurately, if one is not ready to stand behind the sentiment.

The size of the crowds in Western capitals after January 7, bearing signs proclaiming "Je suis Charlie," were impressive, but compare them with the animated crowds of men who appear in the Middle East whenever an offense to Islam has been felt. If it came to blows, I fear the former would rapidly disperse. The truth is that the only people who put their lives on the lines to defend our Western freedoms are our soldiers. They allow the rest of us to go on with our lives, enjoying not only our rights but also our wonderful way of life.

In my publication on freedom of speech I argued that our Western civil rights have been historically achieved; that they were fought for by previous generations. These rights were achieved alongside growing material progress in the West (achieved to the greatest extent on the backs of non-Westerners): when ordinary people have a roof over their heads and are able to purchase a second set of clothes, they develop a sense of self-worth, which led, in turn, to demands to have that worth represented in institutions. This was a century-long process, but by now our rights have become so naturalized that we take them for granted. Thus, rights are often referred to as "universal," as if they were endowed by God.

The lawlessness that accompanies the protests of masked and scimitar-wielding Muslim fanatics, not to mention the sight of burkha-clad women demanding shariah law, especially on the streets of European cities, no doubt strike fear into the hearts of Europeans, accustomed for several decades now to the good life. It is clearly hard for many Europeans to understand the rage of the home-grown jihadists. Barring a miraculous European economic recovery, it is unlikely that the anger of the latter will be assuaged anytime soon.

That being said, most Muslims the world over would no doubt prefer to live in a stable society with economic opportunities and democratic institutions. Yet, they have become wary of the West because of the issue of religion. They do not wish to see Mohammed or other Islamic religious figures treated with the same ridicule as Christian and Jewish icons. To accept such treatment would be to abandon a distinctive part of their own cultural patrimony. Westerners, religious or not, have become inured to insults against Christianity or Judaism as well as to ridicule of traditional claims of religion on us as moral persons. Rather than concentrating on the pieties of Muslims concerning their beliefs, we should proudly demonstrate that our Western heritage, which includes religion, is dear to us. That goes for atheists as well, who should now be declaring: “We Are All Christians and Jews.”

That is my take on the subject.

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