I must admit that I have never bought a copy of Charlie Hebdo; nor, before last Thursday when a friend lent me his copy of the last edition before the massacre in Paris, had I ever read one.
When I first came to live in France, I glanced at a copy or two in the local maison de la presse, and found that I didn’t get the humour, what little of it I understood. I prefer my satire a bit more subtle than Charlie’s. I settled instead for the occasional purchase of Le Canard Enchainé – the satire was as strong, but subtler. I understood more and got a decent proportion of the jokes. Still, it’s years since I have read even that.
Like everyone else in France, I was deeply moved by the events here last week – the bad and the good: horror at the nihilism of the massacres at the editorial offices and the supermarket; pride that the people and the state for the most part supported the victims right to their freedoms to express their views or shop in safety and peace; amazement at the bravery of the heroes, police and civilian, of the week; happiness at the peaceful turnout on Sunday to show that we are not afraid.
I don’t have much to add to the millions of words that have already been written on this subject. Just a little corrective to a common misunderstanding of freedom of speech in France shown by much of the Anglo-Saxon press.
France prides itself on it’s tradition of freedom of speech and the long revolutionary tradition that underlies it. But it is wrong to think that this freedom has no limits whatsoever. Indeed it has both legal and social restrictions; the first is rigid, the latter more elastic. One example of a legal restriction is the Gayssot Act, of 1990, making it illegal to question the existence of crimes that fall in the category of crimes against humanity as defined in the London Charter of 1945. So, Holocaust denial is a crime in France, for the press, for politicians …. well, for everyone. Interestingly though, efforts to extend the Gayssot Act to denial of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey early in the 20th century was found to be unconstitutional because it violated the right to freedom of speech!
There are many other such restrictions, the kinds of limits that you would expect in any civilised democracy where the rights to life and liberty are respected. The sort of things Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the US Supreme Court had in mind when he wrote in a famous judgment:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
Social restrictions to freedom of speech exist in all societies, very often in the form of taboos, religious and otherwise. As you would expect, as religion declines in France, the religious taboos become fewer and fewer, as the presence of a strong anti-clerical element in public and private life, and the existence of Charlie Hebdo itself, demonstrates. The social and political taboos are harder to define but they are there, and they still occasion self-censorship. One clear area is in matters of sexual activity, which are generally seen as private and beyond public comment, although in the case of politicians and civic leaders, this is breaking down. None the less in many ways, in France, the right to privacy trumps the right to free speech.
So when you read in your papers, or hear on your TV, about the Frenchman’s absolute right to untrammelled free speech, remember that this is not really the case. It is arguable that the French have more freedom of speech than most. The existence of Charlie Hebdo may be evidence for this, in which case long may it continue to keep pushing the boundaries. But total freedom of speech – the total right to say anything you want, true or false – does not exist in France, nor for so many good reasons, can it ever exist in any civilised society.
But there is a question that the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and by extension the attacks on freedom of speech, raises: what about the offence I cause to others when I exercise my right to freedom of speech, even if I stay within the legal and social constraints? Do the offended not have rights, among them the right to be offended and the right to hit back?
Sloths, in general, tend to avoid hard moral and ethical questions such as these. But the events of last week force us all, sloths included, to try to answer.
As I see it, if freedom of speech gives me the, albiet limited, right to offend, then it gives the offended the right to be offended. It also gives them to right to act on that offence, but with the proviso that they act only within the same constraints as me. So they may attack me in voice or print , publish cartoons attacking me or my ideas, try to persuade others to have nothing to do with me; but they may not punch me in the nose, set fire to my house, bully my children, nor slaughter me and my colleagues in an editorial meeting or at the supermarket.
Further, freedom of speech gives me the right to criticise, to correct and to mock what another person believes, including social, religious and political belief, even if such criticism, correction or mockery causes offence, because these are matters of opinion, and we are all free to hold what opinions we like no matter how ill-founded. (Yes Virginia, despite the limits on expressing them, you have the right to hold any cock-a-mamie opinion or belief you want. Just keep them to yourself!) Beliefs are elective, and we choose to adhere to them, or not, and such choices are open to criticism. Pope Francis is wrong to claim that faith is beyond mockery: he may have been born Catholic and a believer and he elects to remain both. I was born Catholic and a believer, but I elect to remain neither. We are both open to criticism and mockery for the views on faith we hold, and the views themselves are also open to mockery.
However, freedom of speech does not give me the right to criticise or mock another person for what they are. No attack on matters of colour, ethnicity, gender, looks, physical handicap, etc. is ever justified. What people are, is not elective, it is forced upon them at birth or by happenstance, and, because they cannot change, they may not be criticised or mocked. It is wrong to gun people down in a supermarket. It is doubly wrong to gun them down because they are Jews. Or French. Or in wheelchairs. Or gay. Or blue eyed.
I probably will continue not to buy or read Charlie Hebdo but I think it is a healthy sign that it exists. That said, and in a spirit of solidarity, I am happy to say ‘Je suis Charlie‘, just as I am also happy to say, ‘Je suis Ahmed‘ and ‘Je suis juif‘, but most of all ‘Je suis humaine‘*
* and that’s not easy for a sloth to say!