Hello everyone. I am working on a piece to submit to Lost Graduate Magazine this week, so I’ve been a little too busy to prepare much. However, I thought I should post something, so here is a little commentary on the limits of free speech. Enjoy!
Salman Rushdie, speaking recently on Bill Maher’s show and discussing the swath of perceived attacks on free speech in the last year, declared that “satire, political cartoons, even novels – one of their functions is to rock the damn boat…what would a respectful political cartoon look like?”. The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, along with the more recent attacks in Texas and the more distant attacks in Denmark (and, of course, the threats on Mr. Rushdie himself, not all that long ago) have stirred a debate on the place of free speech in human society that is as interesting as it is important. The Western world has enjoyed an unprecedented level of freedom to hold differing opinions and to propagate those opinions since the Enlightenment – admittedly, with some bumps along the way. In the modern world, what is the place of free speech?
In the months since the Charlie Hebdo attacks a dominate narrative emerged, one arguing that free speech should be unlimited, that satire is a necessary function of the media, and that the attackers were 100% in the wrong. A large minority argued that while freedom of speech is important, it doesn’t give people the right to seriously offend, as when cartoonists draw the Prophet. The debate has been very heated and very complicated, and few have been able – I believe – to articulate either side very well. Those arguing for complete and total freedom of speech would, I am sure, be highly alarmed to see images of Klan burnings in their newspapers, and would likely not want to constantly hear revolutionary communists discuss their plans on the television. The days of McCarthy were not all that long ago, it is well to remember. Should there be limits on free speech?
Many would argue that limiting free speech in any way limits democracy: if we are not free to express our opinions, than we are not free. Additionally, those in government and civil society who determine what we “can” and “cannot” talk about dictate the very nature of our society, which, again, limits our freedom. Most would agree that freedom of speech is thus a necessary component to maintaining a society run by and for the people.
Our journalists especially should be free. They are the ones who tell us what to think about the world, and they must have a free hand to do. They should constantly question every source, other stories, and themselves; they should be critical of the state and of the prevailing order; they should be, above all, interested in discovering the truth. However our journalistic press has repeatedly failed us, most notably in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Additionally, the 24 hour news-cycles, and the advent of “instant” news on the internet and social media sites in particular, has further corrupted the ability of the media to provide us with objective, truthful stories. Simply put, it is difficult for capitalism to coexist with a free press. News sources and journalists are in constant competition for revenue, often based on advertising (generated by “views” in the digital age), which makes their primary goal to generate views, not to remain objective and truthful. Admittedly, they must remain reasonably objective and truthful to preserve their journalistic integrity enough to consistently generate views, but if their primary motivation is profit, it is naïve to think that they are the true independent arm that we would like to think that they are. For this reason I personally prefer state-owned news corporations, namely the CBC, BBC, and Al-Jazeera, only because their profit incentive is reduced because of their state funding. Of course, being funded by the state should raise several red flags, but at least we know who is funding them; it is slightly more ambiguous with large independent news corporations, indebted to advertisers and shareholders.
Our satirists should absolutely be free. Removed from the somewhat intimidating obligations of the journalist, satirists can feel free to raise questions and mock our very beliefs and actions as a society, or individuals within it. They are an integral part of a free and open media. They can air their own opinions far freer than can the journalist because the audience recognizes it has opinion. Satirists lampoon our deepest held beliefs; they humanize every individual and situation, reminding us that the Emperor wears no clothes, and expose the ridiculous when it is ridiculous.
With those assumptions in mind, let us turn to the recent cartoonist killings. Of course, no satirist should ever lose his or her life for something that they have written or drawn, and, by extension, no individual should ever be killed for something that they believe. However, seeking to offend people for no valid reason should also be considered a trespass. If we are to demand the right to free speech, which we should, we must also practice the unwritten commandment: don’t be an asshole.
The attack in Texas specifically was carried out on those who violated this commandment. Of course – and I cannot stress this enough – that was no reason for them to be killed, and there exists no justification in my mind for ever taking a human life. That said, the organizers of the event which was attacked was a racist hate-group, and has consistently been involved in “defending American values” from the encroaching “Islamification” of the West. The founders and followers of this group are bigots, plain and simple. They are best known for actively opposing the construction of the “ground-Zero mosque”, a planned Muslim community center built in NYC somewhat near the site of the Twin Towers. This alone, let alone their hateful rhetoric, suggests that they equate “Muslim” with “terrorist” in all cases. The Norwegian mass-murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, even quoted the founders of the organization many times in his manifesto. The group in question was thus not only willfully and unhelpfully rude, they were deliberately inflammatory.
What it comes down to is then very simple: don’t be an asshole. Every individual should be able to hold their own opinions and to share them with others, but this does not, in any way, green-light hateful, inflammatory, and libellous rhetoric.