The irony of free speech

12:38 AM January 12, 2015

The killing of 12 people in Paris connected with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has stirred outrage and debate all over the world. Many have strong opinions about the tragedy, and most assume they know exactly what the event was about. Yet, there are layers of complexity that emerge as one follows the details of the story.

On the one hand, the killings have been met with vigorous assertions of the right to free speech, at least in the West. Such a right, its proponents claim, is universal, if not absolute. It includes the right to mock all figures of power inasmuch as they see themselves as infallible and beyond reproach. Satire is the necessary, and often the only, weapon available to hold them accountable. The explosion of jokes about officials, capitalists, and clergy in many places from time to time attests to the corrosive power of satire. Mockery and blasphemy are often weapons of choice when dealing with a totalitarian power that deems itself sacred and absolute. The exercise of the right of free speech comes with an ethical imperative to speak truth to power.


Confronted with the pretensions of the sacred, according to this logic, we have a duty to mock it. We must demystify it with laughter and throw off its yoke with irreverence if we are to liberate those oppressed by its agents. This was the tradition espoused by Charlie Hebdo, one that comes down from philosophers ranging from the Cynics to Voltaire to Nietzsche.

On the other hand, there is the complementary view from this same Western liberal tradition, namely, that we must also respect the sacred. The sacred must be given its proper place, practiced in private so as not to interfere with the public. Segregated from secular spaces, it can then be tolerated. Believers of different faiths can live side by side, free from the imposition of other beliefs. The secular domestication of the sacred is codified into another right: the freedom of religion. Such a right allows the sacred to coexist with the secular. The secular state is thus the site for the coexistence of these two rights: the freedom of speech, including the freedom to mock the sacred, and the freedom of religion. One is free to worship the sacred so long as it does not usurp the secular and its guarantor, the state. Ironically, it is the secular state, as that which rules over the sacred and its mockery, which reigns supreme. In effect, it becomes the repository of the sacred.


In protesting against those who seek to silence our right to protest, do we, who are in and of the West, not also uphold the sacredness of the secular right and the moral imperative to mock the sacred? Are we not sacralizing the secular, turning cartoonists into martyrs, and therefore witnesses—which are what martyrs are—to the faith and unqualified truth of free expression? Peaceful protests, expressions of grief and solidarity are necessary in mourning the deaths of journalists. But should we also mourn others whose deaths—for example, in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine—were in part the result of having their ways of life systematically mocked? Did mocking perhaps bring about the devaluation of their beliefs and therefore of their personhood, making their deaths of little account? To what extent does free speech cultivate a climate that makes it easy to deprive others of their freedom and their lives?

Among those who proclaim an unwavering faith in the right to free speech, there is a tendency to forget the ongoing wars that are daily waged in the name of this and other so-called universal rights. For in the West, the right to satirize the sacred is also carried out by other means: drone warfare, counterinsurgency and torture, for example. In France, as in many other parts of Europe, the war spills into various forms of anti-Muslim discrimination: in schools, employment, and popular culture. Such wars come from a long history of colonialism whose legacy is far from over. As in any war, there have been and will continue to be all sorts of needless casualties. This is what’s really at stake: the endless wars fought by extremists on all sides who want nothing more than the fight to continue, turning bystanders into unwitting and unwilling combatants. The faith in free speech espoused by those in the West, which includes the freedom to mock, makes many a party to these wars, though they don’t like to think about it, at least not until hooded men arrive at their doorstep, brandishing guns and making martyrs out of the most fervent believers in the necessity of mockery.

Finally, what about the killers who are tied to al-Qaida? Their acts were a terrifying response to the endless war on terror. The y targeted the satirists to the extent that the latter’s cartoons themselves had become weaponized. In doing so, they doubtless sought maximum publicity, exploiting the right to free speech, in order to gather recruits for their cause. Meanwhile, the killings will most likely benefit the French Right, driving the state to increase surveillance and curtail civil liberties, including, perhaps, free speech. Another irony. It is precisely these wars that have to stop for these killings to abate and for free speech to become deweaponized. But that’s probably unlikely to happen any time soon.

Vicente L. Rafael ([email protected]) teaches history at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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