Summer Studies is in the shops! Freedom of Speech – where do we draw the line? https://t.co/f80fE2lFVB
On the morning of 7 January 2015, in broad daylight in Paris, two Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered eleven people; five others, including a number at a kosher supermarket died in related incidents in Paris that day. Even in the light of the many horrors produced by the complex and seemingly insoluble problems in the Middle East, this event shocked the world. The Charlie Hebdo killings, motivated by anger at the magazine’s use of – in their eyes, blasphemous – cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, were apparently intended to be an assault not simply on a European city but on the distinctive European and Western value of free speech. Some days later two million people, including many heads of state, marched in Paris in solidarity with France, and the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ acquired widespread currency as a symbol of identification with the victims and the ideology for which they had died.
The original inspiration behind this issue of Studies was last August’s Parnell Summer School, held in Avondale, Co Wicklow, which was dedicated to a discussion of those events in Paris and the topic of freedom of speech to which they have inevitably given rise since. Four of the papers delivered then, in edited form, are published here. (A fifth, by Dr Sylvie Kleinman, already appeared in the spring issue of Studies). Studies is greatly indebted to Felix Larkin, director of the Summer School, who suggested the publication of these papers and for his generous assistance in making this possible.
Professor Neville Cox’s lucid analysis focuses in particular on the strong reaction to the killings and what the sheer strength of that reaction seemed to say about attitudes on either side of an ideological divide. He mentions the striking fact that the normal print-run of the magazine shot from its usual figure of 60,000 to 7.95m worldwide for the so-called ‘survivors’ edition’ produced in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity. ‘From the sight of world leaders walking arm in arm in Paris to the ubiquity of the “Je suis Charlie” message and hashtag’, he writes, ‘there was a clear inference to be drawn that the world was standing with Charlie Hebdo and with France in its hour of need’. But which world? In what sense could ‘the world’ as such be said to have been in a solidarity of understanding for what the cartoonists had so fatally done? Given ‘the clash between Western secularists who see blasphemy laws as unjustified interferences with freedom of expression, on the one hand, and Muslims who wish to see the sacred legally protected from blasphemy, on the other’, how ‘can there genuinely be seen to be an “international” right to publish blasphemous material’, if we are to take the sensibilities of the Muslim world seriously and unthink the assumption of global superiority that so easily inhabits the Western secular mind?
Few concepts better epitomise the difference of perspective between the Muslim and the Western secular liberal world than laïcité. Dr Patrick Claffey probes in fascinating detail the genesis and leading features of this concept, which looms so large in France’s problematic confrontation with its colonial past and the challenge of integrating the Muslim presence in its midst. By 2030, as he reports, it is predicted that there will be 6.8m Muslims, or 7.5% of the population, living in the country. Will this, as the fear is in some circles of sophisticated opinion, ‘compromise les acquis de la laïcité’? Or will France, its ‘profoundly ambivalent intellectual relationship with religion’ notwithstanding, learn to open to ‘the other’, even ‘the Muslim other’? Can it own the full range of its complex political traditions, which in fact comprise rather more than the much-vaunted valeurs républicaines alone, in aid of greater integration? The danger is that the country might remain ‘in a situation of perpetual mésentente’, what Jean Baudrillard suggests is ‘a society at odds with itself’.
Brian Trench, who has taken a close interest in France over many years, notes the contradictions at work in the reactions to what happened in January 2015. World leaders who themselves persecute journalists and inhibit their freedom to speak and write freely marched in Paris in ostensible defence of that very principle. (The author also mentions the Irish government’s espousal of blasphemy legislation at this point). Other commentators qualified their condemnation of the atrocity, hinting that Charlie Hebdo might have brought its misfortune on itself. The question was raised: is Charlie Hebdo racist? Islamophobic? In this regard, Trench wonders ‘how such insinuations of self-imposed danger would have been seen in Ireland if they were the response to the murders of Veronica Guerin in 1996 and Martin O’Hagan in 2001’.
He helpfully lets us hear the voice of Charlie Hebdo editor Sebastien Charbonnier (Charb), who himself died in the attack, defending the magazine against the charge of Islamophobia: ‘Who are the islamophobes?’ Charbonnier asked, in an essay published posthumously. ‘Those who claim that Muslims are stupid enough to get excited at the sight of a grotesque drawing’. ‘The Charlie Hebdo caricatures are not directed at all Muslims’, he insisted.
By virtue of what twisted theory would humour be less compatible with Islam than with any other religion? … If we let it be understood that we can laugh at anything, except certain aspects of Islam because Muslims are much more sensitive than the rest of the population, what are we doing, if not practising discrimination?
This, of course, raises directly the question of the legitimacy of potentially offensive cartoons, merely ‘grotesque drawings’ for Charbonnier, perhaps, but something else entirely for others, Muslims not least. Influential voices in France were raised on both sides of this argument. Reflecting on the phenomenon of ‘cartoonophobia’, Brian Trench concludes: ‘Laughter can be a strong antidote to obscurantism and dogma. Laws and moral police should have no place in regulating what we laugh at’. Here he finds common ground with Felix Larkin, who has particular expertise in the field of Irish political cartoons and whose own paper is a robust defence of the art of the cartoon and the ‘freedom to offend’. (It is, perhaps, fair to say that the offending he has in mind is, for the most part, the mild political satire of the late, great Dublin Opinion, whose greatest act of violence on record may have been – and Felix Larkin refers to this – to push Eamon de Valera’s head through the drawn frame of its front page!) The author acknowledges that there are limits and he would not ‘attempt to argue that we have a right to articulate naked prejudice, to present material or images that are irredeemably racist or xenophobic, antisemitic or anti-Islamic, sexist or homophobic’. But, he concludes defiantly, ‘let us not assist [the terrorists] by imposing, or tolerating, restrictions on our precious freedom of expression – thus bending the knee to terrorism. Je suis Charlie!’
Jesuit philosopher Patrick Riordan probes the question of limits to freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the rational foundation on which such freedoms and their possible restriction might be based. He cites John Locke, who ‘based the liberties he defended not on any conception of natural rights but on the capacities of humans as progressive beings’, whose progress freedom of expression ought to promote. The United States Supreme Court had followed this kind of thinking over the years: freedom of speech and freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, ‘was meant to protect and facilitate communication among free and ordinarily intelligent people in the pursuit of rational ends’. But the 1970s saw a shift in the Court’s thinking, ‘whereby expression was extended to cover any form of expression, regardless of its content or whether it attempted to convey ideas, and the corresponding right was absolutised, such that no countervailing reason could ever prevail to entitle a legislature to curb the freedom of expression’. This approach has had sometimes bizarre results, but the alternative – of being seen to restrict freedom in the name of any principle whatever except ‘human rights’, however conceived, and thereby introducing the apparently always-to-be-resisted notion of any kind of censorship – is now always deemed to be the greater evil. And so even hate speech of every description may be effectively protected.
The pertinence of such thinking to Charlie Hebdo does not need pointing out. Dr Riordan insists that two tests should properly be applied to arguments urging the right of freedom of expression: ‘can the expression be interpreted as a rational contribution to a conversation inviting others to reflect on some matters of relevance to the shared interest in the democratic culture?’ And: ‘does the expression support or undermine the fragile common culture of recognition and respect for persons as partners in the shared public space?’ These tests, he argues, have the merit of being ‘public and objective, and not a matter of measuring the extent of some subjective quality such as offence or insult’.
Free Speech in the Church was the English title of a pioneering study produced as early as 1953 by Karl Rahner, in the pontificate of Pius XII. Free speech could hardly have been said to be flourishing in the Body of Christ at that time and Rahner himself, along with some famous colleagues, had been, in the words of Dr Gerry O’Hanlon, writing on the topic in these pages, ‘intermittently under a cloud’. Rahner warned that the Church:
should be more careful than ever before not to give even the slightest impression that she is of the same order as those totalitarian states for whom outward power and sterile obedience are everything and love and freedom are nothing, and that her methods of government are those of the totalitarian systems in which public opinion has become a Ministry of Propaganda.
Writing with what Gerry O’Hanlon calls ‘admirable restraint and delicacy’, Rahner added that ‘we – both those of us who are in authority and those who are under authority – are perhaps still accustomed here and there to certain patriarchal forms of leadership and obedience which have no essential or lasting connection with the real stuff of Church authority and obedience’. Church teaching about freedom of speech within the community has, happily, continued to develop since that time, particularly thanks to Vatican II, and the essay to hand traces the development with some care. But practice in this matter, as is well known, has often left a lot to be desired. Dr O’Hanlon is glad to be able to add: ‘The re-opening of windows by Pope Francis has been experienced by many… as a great relief’. The Church, he argues, ‘is more truly a sign, a sacrament of [its] divine origin and end the more it can encourage that freedom of speech which is rooted in responsible love. This respect for freedom is part of its mission to our world’.
‘Freedom of speech which is rooted in responsible love’ seems a far cry from those terrible events in Paris. As the essays referred to earlier make clear, those events raise questions of far-reaching importance for human society as a whole and for peace in the world. Is there, as Patrick Riordan’s title asks, ‘freedom of expression, no matter what?’ What, if any, are the limits of free speech? What are the criteria? Who should decide? How do these questions appear in the differing perspectives of the liberal West and the Islamic world?
There is increasing confusion in the West about these questions. The right to speak with untrammelled freedom, even at the cost of giving great offence comes into conflict with the right not to be offended. The American Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump, owes his vast and apparently burgeoning popularity to his supposed readiness ‘to tell it like it is’, unlike the buttoned-up, politically correct, supposedly establishment elite, out of touch with the audiences who so naively applaud and support Mr Trump. In the process, he appears to exercise the most wildly irresponsible right to say whatever he chooses, at no risk to his poll-numbers or his upward ascent. A similar pattern is perceptible in the successful election campaign of the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, whose abusive language and sometimes wild threats, did nothing to damage his cause.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum in several senses, some university campuses in Britain and the US, not, incidentally, places themselves most likely to be in Trump’s column, are pursuing a ‘No Platform’ policy towards speakers whose views they do not, for one reason or another, wish to hear. Joanna Williams, in her recent book Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (quoted earlier this year by Andrew Anthony in The Observer), writes: ‘In today’s marketed and consumer-driven higher-education sector, many students have come to expect freedom from speech. They argue the university campus should be a “safe space”, free from emotional harm or potential offence’. Part of the reaction in Britain has been, very understandably, to the activities of Islamic fundamentalist hate-preachers on campus and elsewhere. But when a speaker of impeccably liberal credentials such as Germaine Greer finds herself ‘disinvited’ on quite other grounds, and ‘trigger warnings’ are being issued by many American universities in order to alert students to course material they might possibly find distressing for whatever reason, the debate (not perhaps the right word in this instance) has clearly moved on and, ultimately, the very freedom of enquiry for which universities exist is placed in jeopardy.
It might be thought that this latter tendency is not yet apparent in Ireland. Not on university campuses, perhaps. But some – and no small minority – feel that media coverage of important questions of public social policy, particularly such so-called ‘neuralgic’ questions as same-sex marriage and abortion (but there are others), tends to be one-sided to the point of effectively ‘no-platforming’ the ‘wrong’ side, easily disparaged – and therefore dismissed – as ‘the religious right’ or the like. It will be remembered that, at the time of the marriage equality referendum last year, those opposed to same-sex marriage (in fact, a third of all who voted) were quickly labelled ‘homophobic’ and largely silenced: there was only one politically correct view to espouse. The result was that ‘the open and lively debate of opposing points of view’, ‘the communication of ideas’, which, as Patrick Riordan points out, were the social goals the US Constitution wished to promote in defending freedom of expression, tended to be stifled in a manner unworthy of a mature democratic society.
Some years ago Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, devoted his Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh to the topic of religious language and the ways in which it prompts us towards a greater openness to references to the transcendent. For Muslims, for whom language should, as Professor Cox points out, respect the sacred, this is a given. If the Islamic world has a journey to travel towards understanding Western tolerance and the values that underlie it, it is, rather, the secularised West that needs to rediscover those ‘signals of transcendence’ in language, in Peter Berger’s phrase, with which Rowan Williams is concerned, and find its way to recognise the properly religious depths in every human being, a precondition, in turn, for some genuine understanding of Islam. Another eminent Christian thinker, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his highly influential A Secular Age, published in 2007, focused on ‘the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual’ that characterise the secularity of the West. He has just produced a new book, entitled The Language Animal. The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, in which, among much else, as Brian McClorry SJ reported in our sister-publication Thinking Faith in May, he makes the point that ‘the matrix of language is conversation’ and conversation involves joint attentiveness. These explorations may contribute to opening up the space in which such mutual attentiveness and attentive conversation might gradually become more possible, making at least a little less likely appalling atrocities of the kind that occurred in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on 7 January 2015.