Would restricting the illustrations of Charlie Hebdo conflict with the goals and values of freedom of expression? Who should decide what to restrict and manage in the content of the Internet? Should these restrictions be reflected in law?
The publication of satirical cartoons in French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, initially generated domestic debate surrounding both the placement of Muslims and the boundaries of freedom of expression within contemporary French society. The illustrations caused such significant offence to the Muslim minority that the events were scrutinised internationally. The subsequent violent backlash implies the immorality of the illustrations, but does such ‘immorality’ justify the restricting of such expressions? Critics of Hebdo, that mainly consist of French Muslims, called for strict regulation over expression acts within French law. My argument is that freedom of expression is quintessential within a working democracy, and despite the tragic outcome of Hebdo, French Muslims need to develop a tolerance to the homogenous secular culture of France. In return, autonomous French citizens will allow Muslims to spread knowledge surrounding their religion sensibilities. I believe this is a rational response that diminishes offence, harm and avoids government interference, a major fear of democratic individuals as restriction clashes with the autonomous goals and values of freedom of expression. Furthermore, the killing of 12 people encourages exploration into the most moral manner in approaching restricting expression. I examine the spectrum of control; beginning with absolute government and ending with self-governing.
The events of Hebdo unfolded in a political context whereby Muslims have experienced consistent criticism directly to their religious beliefs by a society that does not recognise and respect religion, i.e. ban the burqa campaign. Therefore, it is plausible as to why French Muslims took offence to yet another harmful portrayal of their religion. Hebdo “defamed” the Prophet, which is inherent to Muslim identity and “historically linked to Western oppression of Muslims”, thus the vilification of the Prophet in the the illustrations present as “morally problematic” (Lægaard 2007, p.492). France alone possesses the second largest population of Muslims within Europe, 7.5%. Such a significant figure validates the exploration of restriction on freedom of expression in France, with the hope of establishing boundaries of respect and religious sensibilities for the French Muslim minority (Hackett 2016, figure 1). One of the illustrations portrayed the Prophet crying, with the text translating into English “Muhammad, overwhelmed by fundamentalists… it’s hard to be loved by so many idiots” (Fitzgerald 2015). Generally, the offence is deemed significant in the eyes of Muslims, however, insignificant to those who reject religion completely or identify as an autonomous democratic citizen. It is clear that the conception of offence and harm is vastly different in both cultures. The illustrations do not constitute a “moral disvalue” which would “outweigh” justifications for restrictions, I do not see a limitation on speech acts effectively “easing or countering [Muslim] oppression” (Lægaard 2007, p. 493). The notion of supressing racism towards Muslims is a completely different argument.
The issue at hand occurred within the democratic structures of contemporary France, which aligns itself as politically secular with a minuet tolerance for religious expression. The illustrations are responsible for highlighting the lack of autonomy Muslim culture encompasses, an extreme contrast to the values the French majority hold (Rostbøll 2009, p. 642). Freedom of expression is a defining feature within democracy, and imperative for autonomous individuals to function. JS Mill (1871) offers the most concise argument for complete freedom of expression as he sees the silencing of expression robbing the chance of humans to exchange error for truth, and by silencing discussion is an assumption of infallibility, an assumption so outdated it can only be applied to religion. By adopting Mill’s passion for free speech, the illustrations challenged the “deep slumber of decided [Muslim] opinion” surrounding freedom of expression (Mill 1871, p.84). The illustrations are believed to question the religious law that French Muslims live by. In order for a legitimate democracy to function, society must be able to discuss all “mental positions” of a current truth to reveal whether or not it can be deemed moral or immoral (Mill 1871, p.72). It is clear that the French align themselves among “enlightened” values measured historically by “European development”, whereas those aligning themselves with Islam are considered to be “living in the dark middle ages” (Rostbøll 2009 p. 626).
As rational beings, we must respectfully recognise the portrayal of the Prophet in Charlie Hebdo as offensive to the Muslim community. The hostile and ultimately deadly reaction of the French minority, justifies the call for banning hate speech. Hate speech has the capacity to cause “legitimate” harm, however, it is almost impossible to distinguish “legitimate” from “illegitimate harm” as the severity depends on personal perspective and context of the offence (Van Mill 2016, p.5). I have applied the events of Charlie Hebdo to Robert Admur’s ‘framework of concern’ in order to better understand the most adequate moral reason for justifying restriction of expression. Admur (1980) concludes expressions that invoke a false belief as well as expressions that cause harmful consequences, are worthy of concern. Both forms of harm were executed after Hebdo published the illustrations, the latter greater in extent. Rostbøll (2009) calls out the freedom of expression as encouraging disrespect for religious feelings, as the principle does not demand moral constraints that would restrict such discourse. Although, it is clear that the publications contributed to a “anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant public discourse” (Rostbøll 2009 p. 626). However, as mentioned by JS Mill’s, the idea of truth has to be challenged to decipher wrong opinion from fact. Van Mill (2016) explains harm in terms of intimidation, and although the illustrations insulted and humiliated the French minority, there is simply not enough moral reason to restrict these forms of expression on this basis. It can be argued that the unlawful reaction to the illustrations can be attributed to the lack of information and knowledge Muslims have access to in their culture as censorship is encouraged, creating a “veil of ignorance” (Admur 1980, p. 293). Van Mill (2016) concisely argues those who live under the eye of a hostile censorship fail to explore all that is not customary, which completely disregards the values found within democracy. The act of free speech nurtures creative intelligent individuals that challenge unfamiliar opinions in order to better understand society and discover truth, a quality I deem imperative to a flourishing diverse society.
There is no such thing as absolute ‘free’ speech, every society has speech limited to an extent for “the sake of order” and “basic civility” (Van Mill 2016, p.2). This is where the grey area begins, as democracy dangles liberty in front of intellectual and official hands, we are left wondering who should restrict and manage content deemed offensive? Gomberg (1994) paradoxically denunciates the idea of citizens functioning as individually sovereign as well as government institutions taking control over restriction on the basis of reliability. As knowledge is exchanged through social interactions, an autonomous society relies upon “reliable sources”, which are generally successfully established by the control and constriction of the hierarchies found within large-scale organisations, that pay little attention to social needs in favour of revenue raising (Gomberg 1994, p. 101). If we hand over the role of control, Scanlon (1972) argues that governments would not fairly regulate political expression, whilst ensuring the long term benefits of free discussion, ample knowledge and widespread intellect. According to Meiklejohn (1965,) if we, the people are to be controlled, then we, the people must do the controlling. Consequently, it seems justifiable to restrict expression through the formation of a “free government”, by “self-governing” in the sense that not all citizens are freely speaking, but everything that is worthy will be said (Meiklejohn 1965, p. 25).The perfect combination of Meiklejohn’s self-governing society with Kantian’s conception of autonomy examined by Rostbøll (2009), justifies the right to freedom of expression while it at the same time requires that we exercise this right by respecting others as equals.
Through my exploration of the controversial illustrations published by Charlie Hebdo, it is obvious the cartoons were part of a hate fuelled discourse. Hebdo powerfully symbolise freedom of expression, and directed offence to a minority who already feel displaced from French society. However, JS Mill justifies the publications actions as challenging the ‘dead’ truths woven within the Muslim religion. In the search for the perfect balance of control of expression, individuals are asked to weigh up values of equality and democracy with privacy and harm avoidance. If we accept that the implications of censorship and restrictions on our expressions will hinder our ability access information, individuals will have the tools to self-govern society as rationally autonomous human beings.
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