Dying for the Right of Free Expression: A Reflection on the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

The clearly calculated mass murder that occurred yesterday at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, is an affront to basic standards of human decency. However, the ensuing outrage has been spun in terms of various diagnoses: Did the magazine go too far? Do Muslims accept Western values? Is Western intervention in the Islamic world the ultimate cause?  Beyond these questions, however, an uncomfortable meta-question lurks: If you say you’re willing to die for the right of free expression, then what’s wrong when someone takes you seriously and kills you?

Of course, there’s a lot wrong in such a situation — but how much of it is to do with free expression? Murder is simply illegal, whether or not you freely express your views. But clearly that’s not the whole story. As several social media commentators have observed, many more than 12 are killed every day in various places in the Islamic world by extremists. However, the fact that those killed in Paris were champions of free expression elicits an especially strong form of outrage.

Journalists like those in Charlie Hebdo talk about their possessing an unconditional right to offend, an idea that appeals to the liberal in all of us. However, ‘unconditional’ may mean at least two things, both of which are in evidence in the history of free expression: (1) I can offend anyone in any way (short of physically harming them); (2) I am willing to suffer any consequence from my offence.  Taken together, (1) and (2) look asymmetrical: Shouldn’t there be a similar parenthesis after (2) as in (1), which ensures that I’m not physically harmed in return?

However, the modern idea and rhetoric of free expression predates the founding of the welfare state. People who believed that, as Thomas Jefferson said, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, were willing to suffer harm and even die for their right to offend. And often they did, becoming inspirations as ‘martyrs’. Moreover, it is not clear that they felt themselves entitled to any greater protection than that afforded to ordinary citizens, who are left to indulge in various forms of reckless behaviour, unless they physically harm someone other than themselves. However, attitudes have clearly changed, certainly over the past hundred years. The state now appears to be committed to the unconditional protection of free expression.

So, not surprisingly, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, questions were asked about the adequacy of police security, with promises made to make improvements. Needless to say, the task of protecting free expression – which, again, is something above and beyond simply allowing it – is expensive. Ask the British taxpayer, who for about ten years spent millions of pounds per annum protecting Salman Rushdie from the fatwa declared on his life, following the publication of his irreverent novel, Satanic Verses. While providing great symbolism in the 1990s for Britain as a defender of liberal values, with the passing of time more people wonder whether the Rushdie Affair had been handled with excessive caution.

There is something quite admirable about the welfare state’s protection of free expression. It almost looks principled. But it isn’t quite. I say this because it is predicated on relatively few people fully exercising their right. And even in those cases, security is at least partly provided by private means, including insurance policies. If everyone who waved a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ banner last night in an endless sea of selfies actually lived up to the slogan, the state would go bankrupt trying to protect them – either that, or there would be a bonanza for the insurance industry!

It says a lot about our commitment to free expression that we indulge people who push the boundaries to such an extent that they regularly put their own lives at risk by the offence they cause. The welfare state would normally hospitalize people with such suicidal tendencies. But my guess is that business as usual will continue in this matter, just as long as not too many people are offending too many different groups. Protection at current levels remains affordable under the welfare state’s neo-liberal arrangements.

As a closing thought, consider why the first two amendments of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, are the right to free expression and the right to bear arms. Nowadays we extol the one, while loathing the other. But in fact, they were meant to be two sides of the same coin: the right to offend and the right to self-defence. As the Founding Fathers saw matters, shared by Americans today, If you wish to freely express yourself, you also need to protect yourself from the consequences – or be willing to suffer them gladly.



Categories: Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Sociologists of Crisis

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