on the rise in wake of
Charlie Hebdo doesn’t skewer only Muslims. “Sony kissing the big fat ass of Pyongyang’s big moron and killer” is a rough translation of this cover. Click image to enlarge.
The horrific three-day terrorism spree in France this week has evoked a spirited and widespread debate over limits to offensive speech.
Did the target of the initial attacks – satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – go too far? Was coverage of its provocative work – especially in legacy US media – too timid?
Purists argue the antidote for offensive speech is more speech, not censorship. But the specter of self-censorship arose when many media – even The New York Times – found the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo too offensive to republish. Gratuitous provocation was just too hot for some to handle.
It’s a delicate balancing act. Anyone who claims to have a simple answer is simply misguided.
Free speech protections are non-existent in many parts of the world, but the US has always prided itself on its expansive interpretation of this basic human right.
In America, even the rights of neo-Nazis to express their abhorrent viewpoints have been protected by the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, amidst the carnage in France, a blogger in Saudi Arabia was publicly flogged 50 times (the first of 1,000 lashings in his sentence) for the offense of insulting Islam.
One of the most informed takes on the free speech implications of the attacks in France was offered by internationally acclaimed journalist Glenn Greenwald, who castigated US media for its double standards in the post In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons.
The Intercept published a series of anti-Jewish cartoons to underline the point about double standards made by Glenn Greenwald.
Noting that defense of the right to speak has always been separated from the content of the speech, Greenwald pointed to the difference in the current case.
“But this week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself,” Greenwald wrote at The Intercept.
Greenwald was reacting in part to widespread calls for “solidarity” with Charlie Hebdo by republication of its most offensive cartoons. This was epitomized by a statement from uber-leaker Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who tweeted:
“The world must now avenge Charlie Hebdo by swiftly republishing all their cartoons.”
“Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted,” Greenwald noted. “Others went far beyond maligning violence by extremists acting in the name of Islam, or even merely depicting Mohammed with degrading imagery … and instead contained a stream of mockery toward Muslims generally …”
Greenwald then points out the unspoken taboo in Western media against publishing material offensive to the world’s other two global religions, Christianity and Judaism.
“Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim commentary (and cartoons) are a dime a dozen in western media outlets; the taboo that is at least as strong, if not more so, are anti-Jewish images and words,” he writes.
He takes to task those media who declined to republish the most provocative of Charlie Hedbo’s cartoons, then tweaks them further.
“To comport with this new principle for how one shows solidarity with free speech rights and a vibrant free press, we’re publishing some blasphemous and otherwise offensive cartoons about religion and their adherents …”
The point, he says, is that western media are inconsistent in their application of self-restraint, willing to publish inflammatory anti-Muslim cartoons but drawing a strict line at anything offensive to other religions.
The Arc de Triomphe in Paris was adorned with a supportive message after the terrorist killings.
Sensitive to its position, the public editor at The New York Times addressed its decision not to republish the offending material in a blog post on Thursday.
In A Close Call on Publication of Charlie Hebdo Cartoons Margaret Sullivan explained:
“Ultimately, [Executive Editor Dean Baquet] decided against [publishing the cartoons], he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers.
“We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult,” Baquet told Sullivan.
Meanwhile, half way around the world, the opposite of free speech was in evidence in a country noted for its intolerance of religious freedom.
Reporting without a trace of irony, The Guardian on Friday provided a counterpoint to the free speech debate in Saudi blogger receives first 50 lashes of sentence for ‘insulting Islam’
“A Saudi blogger convicted of insulting Islam was brought after Friday prayers to a public square in the port city of Jeddah and flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators, a witness to the lashing said.”
Separating the content of the message from the right to speak it is a cornerstone of freedom of expression, enshrined in the US in the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision allowing Nazi sympathizers to march in Skokie, Il., a case argued by the bastion of liberal thought, the American Civil Liberties Union
A quote widely attributed to Voltaire perhaps best summarizes the issue:
“I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it…”
It is most difficult to defend free speech rights when the content is hateful, denigrating or offensive. But this is when they must be most vigorously defended; otherwise we risk embarking on a slippery slope towards the darkness of censorship, whether imposed by outsiders or self-imposed by fearful media gatekeepers.
The events in France challenge our tolerance for the offensive. Let’s hope we can meet it head on, and not cave to those who would silence critics, however sharp their criticism.
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