the Charlie Hebdo attacks Angela Gilchrist looks at how we
think about those we see as ‘different’.
We can protest for our freedom but can we also accept difference? Photo: Claude Truong Ngoc
The right to freedom of
speech reached a watershed with the Je Suis Charlie march in
Paris. Not only did it reveal double standards but it highlighted
how easily liberty is talked about, yet how impossibly difficult to realise.
The sentiments were
admirable, even moving. But as world leaders who have journalists locked up in
their own countries marched under the Je Suis Charlie banner along with well-known
Western leaders, some began to worry about the trickier, more complex aspects
to this debate.
Does the legalright
to offend others, make it desirable, and if so, when? If you’re a person
who belongs to a marginalised, often discriminated against group, such as those with disabilities, LGBT people
or those who happen to be religious, you’ll know how it feels to have your
particular ‘issue’ lampooned. It’s painful, and we become defensive. What many
fail to understand though, is how this all too human foible remains (as indeed
it must) separate to the right of free speech.
The ability to laugh at
ourselves and our fellow humans can provide relief in an otherwise serious
world, or give rise to unexpressed, yet critical insights. Even more
importantly, a free flow of communication, satirical or otherwise; allows the
public to remain informed. For these
reasons and others, we cannot legalise against the notion of offence. But
healthy as it might be, freedom of speech in a diverse and multicultural
society is far from straightforward.
psychological explanation as to why we sometimes relish offending others but
find it harder to accept for ourselves, is found in Tajfel and Turner’ssocial identity theory. Tajfel and Turner argued
that we find our identity in groups and that we all have a tendency to believe
our own group is superior to others. In this way, we create ‘out’ groups or
make people who are different to ourselves, ‘other’. Some cultural
psychologists believe this was originally protective. Primitive humans needed to
identify hostile tribes and have a means of protecting interests as
they competed for resources down the centuries.
The real challenge of
freedom of speech is giving the same rights to out groups as to in groups. For
example, asylum seekers are arguably an out group in our society at present,
but if they became British citizens and won seats in Parliament, they would
become an in group and perhaps be less easy to lampoon.
And whether we’re talking
about in or out groups, freedom of speech can never be absolute. Our need for
expression is curtailed by laws on hate speech, security legislation, concerns
about fraudulent advertising and restrictions on defamation and slander. Most
free speech pundits would agree that this is desirable. But how do we decide
when mere offence becomes hate speech? At what point is parody and satire
defamatory or slanderous? Some argue
that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are racist and marginalise
immigrant communities and Muslims in particular. Others say the cartoons address pertinent, perhaps even vital, issues
that deserve of our attention.
As free as our speech might
be in the West, there are - and always have been - areas of taboo. These shift
over time as social norms change alongside the tides of history.
Some have suggested that in
this post-Holocaust era few would want to parody Jews, while Muslims seem fair
game in the eyes of some. And the double-standard has not escaped the attention
of moderate Muslims in favour of free speech, but also desirous of respect.
Arguably then, freedom of speech is in part, socially constructed.
Here we reach the nub of
things: while freedom of expression and the right to offend must remain
inviolate in a democratic society, how can we decide when it is desirable? Such
decisions should not be taken lightly, and should never be gratuitous. Perhaps it
is only reasonable and ethical to risk offending a sector of the public if it
informs opinion or highlights an issue to make a necessary point. This is not
self-censorship, it is respect and tolerance for the sensibilities of those
with whom we share our society. It is the responsibility that comes with
This discretion is the
hallmark of a seasoned editor, in much the same way as good clinical judgment
is (or should be) the preserve of an experienced clinician. The wise writer or
film director will not ridicule others or use violence
gratuitously, but only where it informs the plot and characters or tells us something crucial
about an issue. What is appropriate in one situation may be
ill-advised in another. We always need to balance the right to free expression
and the public’s ‘right to know’, against the possible fall-out that will occur
when a group is offended for no good reason. Arguably, those who hold the least
power in our society are seen to have the least access to freedom of speech,
although this is implicit and rarely articulated.
If we’re honest with
ourselves, no matter how libertarian we might be, we will feel the desire to
silence others on occasions, even when we know this is wrong. It can be hard to
accord the right of free speech to those with whom we profoundly disagree. My
mind goes back a few years to a broadcast of BBC’s ‘Question Time’ when
liberals objected to an appearance of BNF President Nick Griffin. But when the
programme went ahead and Griffin disgraced himself with his poor arguments,
those very same critics changed their minds and applauded the decision to let
him have his say.
Perhaps Griffin represented
something of a twilight position – a member of a despised out group whose views
are held to be repugnant by many. Yet his position as leader of a party which
enjoyed a certain amount of support, earned him the right to be entertained by
a public broadcaster. Thus, Griffin held something of an ‘out/in’ position that
Tolerance for the beliefs
of others does not mean we have to share them. It simply means that we
understand that certain ideas are meaningful to others, even if we can’t
possibly agree, or even despise them. Many make the mistake of believing that
where ideas cannot be shared, there can be no tolerance. It is true that some
ideas will be offensive, others plain ignorant. In these cases, all that we
will be able to respect is the individual right to free expression - that is
indeed difficult, but it is surely enough.