Friday, January 09, 2015

I'm not really Charlie, it's perhaps a little more complicated than that...

First, violence is never a justified response to satire, no matter how unpleasant one might find the material personally. That is, if you like, the easy bit, given that we live in a society that has determined that violence, whether committed by individuals or the State, is inappropriate except in self-defence.

My problem is with the 'right to offend' argument. I believe wholeheartedly in freedom of speech, but wonder why it is deemed appropriate to wilfully offend an entire community for having a world view that is different to yours simply for having that view. That hardly indicates a respect for diversity within your community, quite the reverse in fact. Perhaps, to be accurate, my problem is with the 'necessity to offend' and the accuracy of the targeting of that offence.

My family, or at least that on my paternal side, is part of a small religious minority in a city which has seen more than its fair share of sectarian, religion-based violence in recent years. Clashes between Hindu fundamentalists and the sizeable Muslim community in Mumbai have led to violence and death, and the attacks on the city by the Islamist terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2008 did little to enhance trust on either side. So, perhaps, I am more sensitive than most about the notion of poking a community with a stick, just because you can in a free society.

In an increasingly interconnected world, material deemed offensive by a community can be shared and anger stoked up very quickly. That anger will express itself in ways that seem irrational to many of us, but are nonetheless predictable. And, if we have failed to fully integrate communities into our broader society, and make them feel inferior or threatened, such attacks feed fundamentalism and hostility towards the rest of us.

So, feel free to offend if you choose to do so but remember, the consequences may fall upon someone entirely innocent, somewhere far away. It was undoubtedly tragic that so many people, all entirely undeserving, died in such a terrible, terrifying way, for nobody deserves to die for a cartoon. Unfortunately, somewhere far away, a small Christian community are probably wondering what might happen to them tomorrow, or the day after. Nobody in the West will spend much time mourning for them, there will be no hashtag. Likewise, Muslim communities around the world will feel exposed and unsettled simply because they adhere to their faith, and some will suffer, as has been demonstrated in France already. Some will stand by them, many I hope, for most Muslims are as horrified by events in and around Paris as the rest of us are.

In a liberal democracy, we have an obligation to respect our political opponents, whilst challenging their views or their actions. In a liberal society, we have an obligation to respect and defend all law-abiding, peaceful elements of our community, and not tar all members of a particular racial or religious group on the basis of the views or actions of a possibly unrepresentative minority.

The fanatic will always find an excuse to justify his barbarism, and we should not self-censor in the hope that we might dissuade them from violence. However, we should always ask ourselves if we are doing what is necessary to dissuade those tempted by fundamentalism from succumbing. I hope that, in declaring our faith in the right to freedom of expression, we remember that with freedom comes responsibility.


Rankersbo said...

Evelyn Beatrice Hall summed up my feelings in her summary of Voltaire "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

I am troubled by the fall out from Wednesday's events. People are inflamed by the horror of the killings that they are giving anyone who stops and says, "er hang on" a massive kicking. People who are thoughtfully disapproving of Charlie Hebdo, while at the same time also condemning the terrorists are being perceived as justifying terrorist action.

I mean really being angry is natural, but taking it out on those who are more thoughtful isn't right.

Mark Valladares said...


I think that I share that sense of being troubled.

We live in a complex, interrelated world, where our actions potentially have ramifications far beyond our own narrow circle. If we want a society where mutual respect enables us to be more free, we have to stop and think sometimes. We also have to respect the right to dissent from the majority view.

George is taking a thorough kicking from the sort of people whose view of freedom is rather more conditional, and whilst I don't entirely concur with his stance, I can't see that he deserves such treatment.

Rankersbo said...

Sorry to hijack your comments section.

I didn't cheer when Sadam Hussain, Osama bin Laden and Colonel Gaddafi were killed. I was, at some level, glad they were brought to justice, but troubled that they had to die in order for that to happen.

I also don't see clear blue water between racism and other forms of intolerance or nastiness. Sure we are all intolerant, sure but it's a spectrum of shades and tones not black and white.

Perhaps that's the difference between me and those riled by the likes of George. Some of them think bad people deserve to to be met with violence, so arguing that the Charlie Hebdo teams were not heroes is tantamount to saying they brought it on themselves?

The KKK hyperbole seems to have touched a nerve, perhaps those people like to draw a line between racism and other forms of intolerance.

Mark Valladares said...


We welcome all (well most) comments here, so don't worry yourself on that point.

I spend most of my time studying the shades of grey between black and white - my job, if you like, requires me to delineate the areas of doubt and uncertainty and then place a fiscal value upon them. Accordingly, I tend to be suspicious of anything purported to be simple.

And this is one of them. Yes, you can be in favour of freedom of speech, but you can worry about its impact, especially on those less able to protect themselves. And we make judgements on that matter regularly, funnily enough often by those who are currently so keen on the concept.

So, letting George know that he isn't entirely alone seems right, even if I disagree with his tone and language and, indeed, some of his position.