There are few topics more hotly debated in the present political climate than the concept of freedom of speech and how this fits into the structure of human rights. The issue was once again forced onto the agenda of public discussion with the shooting of several journalists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris earlier this week. Although definite motive has yet to be established it is looking increasingly likely that the shooting was a reaction to the social media posting of a cartoon depicting the Islamic leader of Islamic State.
Many articles will be written in the coming days discussing reactions to the shooting and questioning whether the response could ever be considered justified or if it was simply an act of terrorism. That isn’t what I want to discuss today – I want to focus on the initial action itself. However before doing so I do feel it necessary to make my own viewpoint in that murder can never be a rational response to satire. My personal view on this is that the people who gunned down journalists allegedly to avenge their Prophet were morally and ethically wrong to do so. I have nothing to offer to justify the taking of innocent life and it is not my intention to attempt to do so here.
What I do want to discuss is the initial action itself – the act of publishing blasphemy in the form of cartoon satire. I have listened to a lot of people expressing a viewpoint on this over the last couple of days and the main focus of the argument seems to hinge on the question of whether or not the journalists had a right to publish images likely to offend those of the Islamic faith. Setting aside the very natural emotional responses to the murder of the journalists and ignoring completely the idiotic extreme far right cry to “Kill all Muslims” (yes that hashtag genuinely trended on Twitter this week) the one thing that seems to me to be missing from all these discussions is the word responsibility.
I do not believe it is profitable to have a discussion relating to rights without also taking into consideration the concept of responsibility. The fact that somebody has a right to do something is not an indication either that they should do it or that it is a good thing to do. What appears not to be considered by most people when discussing the right of free speech is the fact that in an integrated and diverse society there is an implied obligation to use free speech in a manner that doesn’t infringe on other people. In other words – you may have a right to say what you want but you do not have an absolute right to offend, to abuse or to use your free speech to hurt other people. In much the same way that racism and homophobia are not free speech, deliberately setting out to hurt and mock religious beliefs is not free speech.
I would question the motivation – not just of publishing images that mock Islam – but of publishing images that mock any religion or indeed mock any matter so close to people’s hearts. One journalist discussing the Paris shootings stated indignantly that Charlie Hebdo had also made fun of the Catholic Pope and respected figures in other faiths. His point was “Look – only the Muslims overreact.” But my point is why publish material mocking multiple faiths in the first place? The intention is obviously to offend. Putting such images into the world offers no contribution to making the world a better place. The journalists publishing their satire may well have a right to do so but they also have a responsibility not to do so. If the sole outcome of an action is to offend and mock then surely it is reasonable to conclude such an action is best not undertaken.
The whole issue of human rights is clouded by the issue that the rights of one individual frequently contradict the rights of another. Yes a magazine may have a “right” to publish cartoons that offend members of a faith but equally religious persons have a “right” not to be distressed by public ridicule of their beliefs. In this instance it was the Islamic faith being satirised but to be honest I wouldn’t be too happy if a satiric publication mocked my faith either. Granted my only probable reaction would be a disapproving tut and - I’ll say it again – in no way does printing satire justify killing as a reaction but on the flip side the overreaction in this instance does not automatically imply that publishing the satire in the first place was the right thing to do.
I was particularly irritated by one individual (journalist Tom Holland) who claimed that his right to draw cartoons of the Islamic prophet means as much to him as the Islamic faith does to its followers. He missed the point entirely – to a believer (in any faith not just Islam) core religious beliefs are sacred and intrinsic to life. I am sure Mr Holland could live his life without the loss of religious satiric cartoons impacting on him too greatly. To separate a follower from their faith on the other hand would be akin to losing a limb – their faith is a fundamental part of who they are. This is what I mean by the problem of one right clashing with another. But in this instance depriving Mr Holland and other journalists of the momentary “fun” involved in publishing their cartoons will have little effect on their wellbeing whereas the resulting publication will cause genuine distress to the followers of the faith being mocked. From a utilitarian perspective if the loss of one right causes greater consequence than the loss of another it should follow that the fall-out be minimised by the right with the greater consequence being the one which is upheld.
Or, going back to the issue of responsibility – the responsible thing is not to cause distress in others for no good reason.
Much has been made of the inalienable right of journalists to publish these images and in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity there have been calls for these images to be spread far and right – to “stand up for the right of free speech.” Three wrongs however do not make a right any more than two wrongs do. It was wrong to publish the cartoons in the first place, it was wrong to kill the people who published them and it will be wrong still if multiple national newspapers continue to reprint these images. I’m not saying don’t publish because of fear of repercussion - I’m saying don’t publish through genuine humanity of not wanting to hurt and offend under the guise of humour.
There has to come a time when we stop thinking about what we have the right to do and start thinking about what it actually is right to do.
Join the Witch Path Forward Facebook community. (Click the icon).