Under the Radar

Does Freedom of Expression Really Protect the Right to Offend?

A man holds a placard which reads "I am Charlie" to pay tribute during a gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris January 7, 2015, following a shooting by gunmen at the offices of the magazine. Gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, renowned for lampooning radical Islam, killing at least 12 people, including two police officers in the worst militant attack on French soil in recent decades. The French President headed to the scene of the attack and the government said it was raising France's security level to the highest notch. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

A man holds a placard which reads “I am Charlie” to pay tribute during a gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris January 7, 2015, following a shooting by gunmen at the offices of the magazine. Gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, renowned for lampooning radical Islam, killing at least 12 people, including two police officers in the worst militant attack on French soil in recent decades. The French President headed to the scene of the attack and the government said it was raising France’s security level to the highest notch. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Max A. Joseph

Unlike the other species to ever roam this planet we, humans, are an intelligent group that can manage our differences, be they philosophical, political, racial, religious, or social. Nevertheless, we are also full of inveterate flaws that are somewhat ignored by utopians schooled in the notion of universal values. Aptly, the cowardly assassination of 10 journalists working for the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and 2 police officers offers a unique opportunity to revisit the impractical notion of universality of values as an essential precondition for peace among nations.

Most civilizations are an extension of past ones that either failed to outlive their usefulness to humanity or were simply replaced by more assertive newcomers. Though the Western and Islamic civilizations have run a parallel course, they fought pitched battles for more than a millennium before the former decisively overtook the latter in the nineteenth century and became dominant. The embrace of science and secular values at the expense of religion was unquestionably the key to the Western world’s success, in sharp contrast to its Islamic archrival, which sees Islam, from which it derives its name, as the only path to spiritual, material, and intellectual achievements.Does Freedom of Expression Really Protect the Right to Offend?

Naturally, the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy will bring heartfelt debates on the role played by the tenets of these two civilizations, but will they help bring an understanding or reinforce the divide? Seeing that it will be a dialogue between secular narcissism and religious obscurantism,with two conflicting and somewhat extreme ideologies that ironically pose an identical threat to the survival of humanity, a stalemate is the most likely outcome.

Charlie Hebdo Paris shooting

Charlie Hebdo Paris shooting

Though western values many are highly regarded and embraced through most of the world, they are far from being universally accepted. In fact, there are countries that consider these values an existential threat to their own social cohesion and traditions and resent their imposition on them by an omnipresent and all-powerful mentor. Furthermore, these values are sometimes twisted by demagogues to suit unpleasant narratives that naturally diminish their worth to humanity, hence the disconnect.

Does the freedom of expression really protect the “right to offend,” as some commentators have articulated in the midst of the aforementioned tragedy? In the U.S where the freedom of expression is enshrined into the Constitution, the closest comparison to Charlie Hebdo would be the Westboro Baptist Church, which most Americans consider inimical to their values. In 2005 when a Danish newspaper published unflattering caricatures of the prophet Muhammad that provoked the ire of the Muslim world, U.S newspapers decided not to reproduce the content because they found it to be of bad taste, not out of fear of backlash from Islamic extremists.

In France, however, freedom of expression evolves from a seething resentment of the country’s ruling class and the all-powerful Catholic clergy before and during the French Revolution (1789) to doctrinal contempt for all institutions which, of course, include religion. So entrenched is the French’s contempt for institutions that the country’s intellectuals routinely reject literary honors, including the highly coveted Nobel Prize. I am inclined to believe that the framers of the U.S Constitution were enlightened men who never entertain the thought of enshrining “a right to offend” in a document they cherish. I believe they meant that no person should be prohibited from expressing their thoughts which, incidentally, may end up offending others. Aptly, they would be dismayed at the thought of anyone equating freedom of expression with a “right to offend.” It is indeed true that some people would believe what they want to believe for the reason they want to believe it.

The loss of innocent lives as a result of terrorism is always painful. It profoundly affects the families of the victims and, in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, a nation, if not the entire world. From being the first European country to conferring full citizenship to Jews to pioneering the values of freedom, equality and brotherhood into human consciousness to its scientific prowess, France has made inestimable contributions to humanity. It is only fitting that the whole world stands besides France in this hour of need despite her annoying notion of grandeur as its birthright. Whether recriminations instead of understanding would ensue will determine the verdict of history in the matter.

je suis charlie

CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES A huge march was held in Paris on Sunday to show unity following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the hostage situations in Paris last week. The upcoming issue of Charlie Hebdo features a cartoon Muhammad holding a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sign.

France is a sophisticated and proud “Grande Dame” that believes in her ability to take care of herself. Outsiders should avoid lecturing her on how to deal with this tragedy, which laid bare its vulnerability to religious-inspired terrorism, since it would further injure a wounded nation unaccustomed to second-guessing itself or listening to others. Presently, we are a long way to building societies in which intolerance would be a thing of the past, hence the notion that anyone can stretch the limit of human tolerance and expect it to be universally accepted is simply naive.

The tragedy at Charlie Hebdo proves it. I surmise those murdered journalists were merely stretching the limit of human tolerance, not exercising “their right to offend,” as some demagogues, masquerading as righteous defenders of freedom of expression, would want people to believe. The whole world is dealing with fanatics that do not see anything wrong with strapping explosives on little girls in the name of twisted beliefs. People must protest against the viciousness of ungodly terror acts, not for anyone’s right to offend, which is an indefensible concept, no matter the rationale.

Jan. 15, 2015

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