Freedom, Censorship, and Charlie Hebdo

As I listened to news of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, my first reaction was shock and condemnation. But, as events unfolded and news continued to pour out, I realized that blame might not be so easy to place. Of course, the attack was a tragedy as is every loss of human life, especially by violent means. But, also, just as any tragedy causes re-evaluation, I found myself with questions I couldn’t answer.

Though the terrorists’ response to the lewd cartoons in Charlie Hebdo was wrong, was there also fault in the very creation of those cartoons? Can satire go too far? Is there a defensible boundary between free speech and censorship?

I have to look at the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo a little differently when I imagine that it could have been my own deeply held convictions and religious beliefs that were being mocked by the satirical magazine. Asking these questions, though, creates a moral conundrum. It makes deciphering the incident and placing blame a whole lot harder. The Islamic terrorists were definitely in the wrong but if I don’t necessarily support what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were doing, where does that leave me? Where does that leave us?

In a world that is seriously dealing with the practicalities of how to respond to terrorism, we cannot concede to their violent demands for respect without admitting defeat. But does continuing in our present course, permitting the slander of sacred beliefs, constitute triumph?

In an article on Aljazeera, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan describes what he sees as the nature of Charlie Hebdo: “‘This magazine [is] notorious for its provocative publications about Muslims, about Christians, about everyone,…This is not called freedom. This equates to wreaking terror by intervening in the freedom space of others. We should be aware of this. There is no limitless freedom.’” He says that the publications of Charlie Hebdo fell outside the bounds of free speech. Though it seems extreme to equate the terrorists attacks on Charlie Hebdo to the effect their own publications had on others, his comments bring up the question, “What is freedom?” Is it a term that we can appropriate and use to justify actions or is it something more concrete?

In the aftermath of the attack, Pope Francis, too, suggested that there are limits to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. He said “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” (Newsweek). The Pope’s remarks hinge on what our behavior should be. He is focusing on what moral behavior is, but even though it may not be appropriate to slander others’ faith, does that justify enforcing censorship on our right to expression?

David Brook’s New York Times Op-ed seems to offer a compromise. He proposes that the problem is not others’ violation of some boundary of free speech. The solution is not censorship. Rather, he advocates that we admit to ourselves that certain types of discourse deserve certain types of attention. “Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect.”

Ultimately, Brooks is arguing for critical engagement. We need to learn to filter the content that we receive and give the proper attention to the proper kinds of arguments. His proposal underscores an essential aspect to studies in the Humanities: critical thinking and critical engagement with current problems. In this age of abundant information, we can’t allow every opinion or argument to wash over us with equal power.

Like so many other aspects of life, this tragedy won’t yield to our ever-present desire for easy solutions and easy blame, which means that we can’t shy away complexities. Instead must grapple with them, slowing carving out space for tolerance and peace.


-posted by Phoebe Cook, Humanities Center Intern

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