Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, and privilege

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19

Freedom of speech is a funny beast. I don’t mean ha-ha funny, I mean uncomfortable, loaded with difficult questions and often not funny at all. A bit like cartoons that prod at minorities. On the one hand freedom of speech is this brilliant part of being autonomous that enables intellectual growth and emancipation. On the other hand it means that (unless we live in isolation or spend our lives flanked by yes men) we will be offended by opinions on a regular basis. But here’s the thing: being offensive is not a crime, and being offended is not a reason to restrict human rights.

In the days since the Charlie Hebdo attack there has been a lot of discussion about freedom of speech and whether boundaries need to be asserted, and I, like a million and one others, have an opinion that I thought I’d throw out there, because…well, freedom of speech.

The moral ambiguity of freedom 

Will Self appeared on the Channel 4 news last week to discuss the freedom of speech debate and said, The whole notion is that freedom of speech is to be some absolute right, and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view, interestingly, it places the ethics, human ethics, outside of human society, it makes them something that are here in the cosmos in some way”. 

I find the connection he makes between freedom of speech and religion problematic. Freedom of speech invites debate and the calling out of injustice and it’s a driving force behind intellectual growth and enlightenment. Religious absolutism does the opposite. It promotes a culture of fear that demands blind observance and fuels prejudice and discrimination. Here, Self (like many others) argues that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are irresponsible in their provocation of powerless minorities:

You always have to ask with something that purports to be satire, who is it attacking? Are they people in a position of power? And if it’s attacking people in a position of power, is it giving comfort to people who are powerless and who are assaulted in some sense by those powerful people? This is not the dynamic with Islamist terrorists, they are not in power in our society, and it is not comforting the people who look at these cartoons whether in Charlie Hebdo or in newspapers here, they don’t feel better about themselves or about life to see Islamist terrorists mocked…why does it make anybody feel better?

It’s interesting that he feels he can talk on behalf of us all. Perhaps it’s because those of us who are or have been made powerless by religious absolutists are rarely invited to this kind of debate. In one sense he’s right, Islamic terrorists aren’t in power in his society, and thankfully the religious right don’t feature in my life any more either. But there are experiences other than his and mine at play here. As Nick Cohen says, “power depends on where you stand and who stands below you. The unemployed man with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian journalist. The marginal cleric may have a hard life, but if he sits in a sharia court imposing misogynist rules on British Muslim women he is to be feared”. If the dynamics of our society leave us feeling safe and empowered then lucky us, but we must not assume everyone feels the same. 

I spent a good chunk of my life controlled by a radical religious ideology, and another chunk too scared to talk honestly about it. My experience, and the experiences of many who are marginalised, controlled, and silenced by radical Islam, is that the figures of authority responsible for spreading the rhetoric of terrorism do indeed have power and privilege. They aggressively tout misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic dogma, and they control individuals, families, communities, and sometimes whole states through fear. So, I find living in a society where I’m free to ridicule terrorists who want to dictate the terms of free speech and have me stripped of my autonomy and my right to laugh and poke fun, a very comforting thing indeed.

The legitimacy of grief 


“I am Charlie”, “Yeah, yeah. Me too” (source)

While Obama, Cameron and various other heads of state pledge their support for freedom of speech – a concept that in so many other contexts they really seem to struggle with – other harrowing stories have been unfolding, away from the spotlight of the world’s media. Just consider the following:

In 2015 atheists still face the death penalty in 13 (Islamic) states, Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger convicted of insulting Islam was flogged 50 times in front of hundreds of spectators. He is to be flogged another 950 times over the next few weeks. In Nigeria Boko Haram have carried out their deadliest massacre with 2000 feared dead, and another 19 died when a bomb that had been attached to a girl of 10 years old, exploded. In Sanaa, Yemen, at least 37 people have been killed by a car bomb. In India 2 brothers have been arrested for the confinement and repeated rape of a Japanese student

Above are just a handful of stories that have featured in the media this past week but without an accompanying international rally cry. When I saw the 40 world leaders walking arm in arm at the unity march in Paris I felt conflicted. On the one hand, after a brutal 3 days which saw the murder of 17 innocent people, and an attack on free speech, the sight of Cameron and Merkel et al was pretty incredible. But it’s unsettling to think that the media and political frenzy of the last few days could, at least in part, be down to our outrage that a privileged group of people fell victim to brutality. That our world leaders are prepared to gather in a public show of support for these men (and one woman), and not countless other victims of brutality, suggests that they believe some lives are more valuable than others. Victoria Brownworth illustrates this perfectly:

We may say “pas peur” in solidarity, but it is a solidarity that is illusory and doesn’t actually include us. For women, for Muslims, for Jews, for anyone who comes from a marginalized group or class, “pas peur” can never be true. Those of us who are the real targets of violence–which is not the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, who are actually anomalous victims–are in fact, afraid. We are afraid precisely because we know our lives have little worth in the global hierarchy. We know there will never be massive vigils held for us or hash tags created to memorialize us. The Paris shooting unsettled the world precisely because its victims were not the victims we usually see–and dismiss..

But not all men are granted privilege by everyone. Indeed, there’s an odd dichotomy at play here, because fundamentalist Islamic culture thinks little of non-Muslims and is nonchalant about their death and suffering. I reflect on this as someone who grew up exposed to insidious judgements about non-Muslims. I remember listening to men (always men) talk about non-Muslims as irrelevancies (unless they converted) in a world that needed to be focused only on Islam, and I’ve seen a lot of that attitude online (hello Twitter) over the last few days.

The reality is that while our beliefs deepen our empathy towards some, they can make it easier for us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide. A divide no more apparent than at times like this. Just consider the reactions to the terrible events of last week. On the one hand there was a flurry of predictable judgements tarring all Muslims with the brush of radicalism, out and out Islamophobia, racism, the absurd Murdoch-esque attitude that all Muslims be held accountable for what has happened. And on the flip side of exactly the same coin some Muslims (I repeat: SOME Muslims) reacted angrily to the public display of empathy towards the victims at Charlie Hebdo, some actively separated themselves from the large scale support of free speech, some demanded we tighten the parameters of freedom, and some responded with whataboutery: “yeah it’s sad, but what about Palestine, Syria, Iraq, *insert name of predominantly Muslim country here*” All these reactions demonstrate the belief that some lives have less intrinsic value than others. The simple fact is, if we only care about people who are like us, we’ve lost our humanity somewhere along the line.


I didn’t know much about Charlie Hebdo before Wednesday. I’d seen a couple of cartoons online, that was it. So, over the past few days, like others, I’ve attempted to find out more (this is a short, but interesting reflection on the publication). I flinched at a couple of images and probably made a face like my grandma does when she sees me swear on Facebook, but then I had a closer look, and a read (context is our friend and all that) and as it turns out I find most of the images inoffensive. Most, not all. Some of them I struggle with. But – and this is key – freedom of speech is infinitely more important than my discomfort at being offended.

And anyway, free speech is most dangerous not when it occurs in a magazine, a newspaper, or on tv (because all of that invites a response), but behind closed doors, away from the public gaze, where discussion and resistance are prohibited. I’ve been privy to free speech that incited racism, the murder of apostates and homosexuals, and violent misogyny, and on each occasion there was no debate, no media furore, and life went on as normal. I think back to those appalling ‘discussions’ and they make me shudder. But that doesn’t mean I think we should start policing private spaces, or limit freedom of speech, quite the contrary. The only way xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and any other kind of blind hate can prosper is if we feel too threatened or apathetic to resist – it’s the default reaction of people without freedom of expression, who live in cultures ruled by fear. People with privilege, like Will Self for example, don’t feel the bind of those restrictions, at least not until they want to write something controversial about Islam. But those of us who have lived through religious absolutism know its impact, and for us the freedom of speech debate is about something far bigger than whether cartoonists should be allowed to satirise prophets.

We have to acknowledge that there is a minority but very “real fascistic force”  within some Muslim communities that demands complete control of human expression.  But we can’t let them skew the narrative, because for every xenophobe misusing free speech to tout hate, there are countless others using their voices to dismantle prejudice and oppression. If in some fear induced compromise we relent and start to police anything other than speech that incites violence, it’s not like radical Muslims would suddenly become reasonable. Their focus would shift to other ‘immoral freedoms’ that need to be stamped out. We can’t start down a slippery slope that has the potential to suffocate all but the most powerful or aggressive voices. We must resist, and that means clinging on to our freedom for dear life.

I’ll leave you with what are (I think) two of the most important articles about the events of the past week – Unmournable Bodies, by Teju Cole, and On Charlie Hebdo: A letter To My British Friends, by Oliver Tonneau. Go on, read them.


7 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, and privilege

  1. Very well written and and interesting blog post, I’m not being facetious, I still don’t understand what “male-privilege” actually means, is this kind of Tarek Fatah idea of “white-privilege” i.e. every-time you append a hyphened privilege to a world, it kind of becomes nonsensical. Just to qualify I here is what Marek Fetah thinks white-privilege is please note the irony in his spiel. What is this new “-privilege” catchphrase?

  2. Pingback: Communication Takes the World Stage | Clearly Connected Conversation

  3. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about this. I wrote a blog post about it attempting to contextualize it and drew my conclusions based on that. You raise a great point when you say: “Perhaps it’s because those of us who are/have been made powerless by religious absolutists are rarely invited to this kind of debate. In one sense he’s right, Islamic terrorists aren’t in power in his society, and thankfully the religious right don’t feature in my life any more either. But there are experiences other than his and mine at play here.” I don’t think I’ve read anyone else mention this (sadly). Don’t you think this is a double-edged sword, in a way, though? Because the West isn’t oppressed by radical Islamic extremists, it cannot understand the plight of people who actually are oppressed by them; however, wouldn’t that also lessen their right to write (or draw cartoons) criticizing them? I think intent is also important here. It is hard to believe that the intent of the Hebdo cartoonists is based in pure dedication to social justice and the freedom of oppressed peoples and not at all related to racist contexts. I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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