Next to the message “I am Charlie” a new message has recently been trending on Facebook. “I am not Charlie. I am Ahmed. The dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.” We should all decry the tragic events in France and condemn the barbaric terrorist actions. But I am not Charlie, simply because I cannot stand for any voice which calls for hatred and mockery with no intention other than to insult.
“Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie” are the words which have been circulating throughout the Internet since the unspeakably tragic events at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly magazine. The bold attack shocked the world, partly because of its cold blooded nature, and partly because many saw this as a direct assault against the freedom of speech. The slogan is meant to symbolize solidarity with the 12 people who were assassinated on Wednesday and the work they were doing as journalists.
It is indeed sad that such barbaric acts still take place in the 21st century and all of our hearts go out to the victims and their families. Terrorism is the plague of modern day society. These terrorists accomplished what they had set out to do – avenge the Prophet Mohammed for the blasphemous cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo.
The event didn’t just spark empathy, sadness and anger, however. It also sparked debates regarding the freedom of speech and the extremes to which satire can go. These debates began with the horrendous terrorist acts in France, yet have now gained a life of their own, leading the dialogue away from the tragic event and into the realm of definitions and questions about right and wrong.
So, in the spirit of the recently sparked public discussions, just what is this freedom of speech that is so revered in Western societies? Basically, it is the right to speak without censorship or government restraint. This right is found in almost every European constitution, while in the United States it is a cherished protection guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
However, freedom of speech or of the press does not maintain that while speaking one should not appeal to an inner common sense and make sure that whatever satirical jest is made does not spark unconstrained irrational hatred of others.
In fact, by looking at the very idea of satire and why it was created, one realizes that the intention of taking negative characteristics of other people and exaggerating them in a mocking manner through works of art or free expression has often had the desired moralizing effect – and not one of instigating irrational hatred.
What sort of a moralizing effect could depicting God, Jesus Christ, Mohammed or any religious symbol being stripped naked and subjected to perverted sexual jokes have had? Unless the moral of their drawings was meant to be that any religious person is stupid and ridiculous, with a touch of sadomasochism, there was no real message other than openly confessing hatred towards such symbols. If there is no moralizing intent then it is not satire, and, since it does not take skill to insult someone, it cannot be considered an art form.
Also, it is one thing to make fun of an overly chubby or rich priest, imam or rabbi, calling out for the need for humility, and quite another to try and desacralize symbols of faith and morality.
Imagine if the paradigm was to shift just slightly from mocking religion to mocking people who have been discriminated against many times in the past, like those with weight issues, homosexuals, women, or the handicapped? What if the subject of the jokes had been someone’s race or color? What if they had made jokes about the Holocaust? Would that have been acceptable? Would the world still have rushed to identify with Charlie?
Consider, for example, the 1960s humor of the Irish born British comedian, Dave Allen, who mocked the Roman Catholic Church. “His shows were subversive. He mocked and offended the Catholic Church, resulting in a ban by Irish TV and death threats from the IRA,” wrote Martin Chilton for the Telegraph on December 28, while reporting on “God’s Own Comedian” in a review of BBC Two’s special tribute. Dave Allen, however, died of natural causes in 2005.
Public opinion and the inevitable self-censorship which it already imposes does not seem to incline towards a fair distribution of allowed and forbidden behavior.
Why has the West come to the conclusion that everything a person considers sacred, except religion, is to be respected?
In the process of de-sanctifying everything in society, many forget that even though one is free to call the other person a moron, and even spit in their face, that does not mean that one ought to do so. In fact, such behavior would not make for a very civil or peaceful society. And, certainly, one should not be condemned to death for insulting a religion or a religious leader.
In many criminal codes around the democratic world, spitting on a national symbol (representing a person or emblem), verbally assaulting someone or verbally defaming the image of one’s country results in a criminal record or possibly even imprisonment. So, some symbols are protected by law, as they represent identities and beliefs. Yet, the very symbols which have generated morality in the world, those pertaining to religion, are being mocked irrationally on a regular basis.
If we maintain that the 21st century is, in reality, the civil era of which we regard ourselves as a part, perhaps it is time to realize that, while freedom of speech is our natural right, we have a responsibility regarding what we express. Such a realization, however, should be a function of culture rather than legal repression.
We have a public duty to protect our God given freedom of speech by respecting our fellow man, just as one does on a day-to-day basis in their private lives.
Is it right to say that some human “sensitivities” should be respected while others are ignored? Is it acceptable to confuse free speech with insults? And, most importantly, is it appropriate to neglect to behave publically with the same respect and dignity we show in private, ignoring the duty the freedom to touch so many lives has given us?
Next to the message “I am Charlie” a new message has recently been trending on Facebook. “I am not Charlie. I am Ahmed. The dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.”
We should all decry the tragic events in France and condemn the barbaric terrorist actions.
But I am not Charlie, simply because I cannot stand for any voice which calls for hatred and mockery with no intention other than to insult.
It would be a sad irony if these violent events force us to defend the actions of those who made a career of undermining religious precepts – Christian, Jewish, or Islamic – which helped develop a culture that promotes civility and mutual respect. And, it would be worse still if so many people would see fit to identify with an entity which chose to put the lives of others in danger, having already made their point, with no regard for caution in dealing with such an existential threat.
We shall not be worthy of the freedom of speech until we learn that through it we have the power to stop hate, not start it.
I am not Charlie. Are you sure you are?
Georgiana Constantin is a law school graduate who has studied International, European and Romanian law at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest and received her Masters from the Nicolae Titulescu University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.