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We are all bigots


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Let there be no doubt about it: the recent murder of staff at the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was appalling. No publication, however obscene or offensive, justifies killing in response.

Unfortunately, this crime (and, for all the talk of terror, that is what it is) has led to the usual broader Manichean media narrative of 'us' (the civilised world that believes in free speech) against 'them' (the murdererous, terrorist hordes who do not).

According to large sections of the electronic and print media, 'we' are all Charlie now. While it is absolutely right that we stand with the victims and their families in grief and outrage at these terrible acts, predictably we have been told that we should, as a corollary, also defend people’s rights to say what they like, no matter how hurtful it may be. 

I have previously made the point that this will not wash – a more sophisticated analysis of the values which free speech is designed to protect is required, as well as an analysis of any double standards at play. France itself protects its citizens’ right to insult Islam (and Christianity) but denies the right to wear the hijab in public. Within days of the Charlie Hebdo killings, France arrested a man for making a Facebook post satirising the response and British and American prosecutors' routine use of 'terrorism' as an excuse for outlawing views – as opposed to direct incitements to violence – which they find offensive.

There is a difference between speech which enlightens and that which obscures. 'Speaking truth to power' and allowing fearless investigation of facts which others would rather keep hidden is a major purpose of free speech and the essence of good journalism. Where, however, the dominant purpose of the speech is to offend or incite – and especially where the targeted group is already in a minority with limited means of objecting or putting a case in response, it seems in a different category.

One need only go to the Jewish Museums in Sydney or Melbourne to see examples of how terrifyingly effective speech or images can be in demonising the 'other' and persuading people to view them as sub-human, with results which do not need repeating. I grew up in apartheid South Africa where such propaganda was a staple. Were the 'Total Onslaught' propaganda tracts of the PW Botha era or Jud Süss, Hitler’s notorious anti-Semitic film, really as worthy of protection as the publication of the Watergate tapes or Pentagon Papers? In the modern era, at least, the right to free speech has historically been closely connected to (and even a means of enforcing) the right not to be discriminated against. (Think about the civil rights movement in the US, for example.)

To clarify, I am not demanding additional legal regulation of hate speech, especially where there are already statutes (such as the Crimes Act prohibitions on incitement, s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act or the law of defamation) which cover the ground. I am already uneasy with the string of curbs which anti-terror law in this country has brought on free speech. Nevertheless, I do think that public consideration of free speech and its moral and legal limits should be more nuanced than a sound-bite or hashtag. 

There are no easy answers here: what is required is an ethically nuanced discussion which recognises both a right to an open society without taboo topics but also the vulnerability and marginalisation of some groups and people within society. People cannot be assumed to have thin skins. Nevertheless, to pretend that money and power do not influence speech and, in some cases, openly buy a louder voice for some which allows them to drown out others is to blatantly ignore reality. (One only has to look at the concentration of media ownership in Australia for an example.) 

Context matters to this debate. Where Muslim women are being assaulted in public for wearing traditional dress and rhetoric explicitly linking Islam and terror appears in even mainstream media outlets, does abusive comment such as hateful cartoons or the racist rants on public transport periodically uploaded to YouTube count more as an exercise in free speech or as one in marginalisation or discrimination? Should we deliberately use free speech as an excuse to hurt people because we theoretically can? The problem becomes particularly acute in societies where the demonisation of the other has gone beyond mere words. Shi’a leaders in Iraq, for instance, have just prohibited sectarian hate speech in a context where Sunni-Shi’a tensions are open and violent.

In the final analysis, therefore, it may be that more legislation will be required in order to protect the fabric of society. That would, however, mark a failure for compassion and real freedom. I would hope that we do not reach that point and that a responsible, rather than a knee-jerk, sloganeering but ultimately damaging, approach to free speech carries the day.   

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is a Jesuit presently studying for the priesthood. He has previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.


Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Charlie Hebdo, terrorism, France, free speech, discrimination, Islam



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Existing comments

Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy which is why extremists want to destroy it. Islamic militants use terrorism and murder. Green/Left radicals use regulation to enforce compliance with their worldview using the pretext of tolerance, diversity, and human rights, and by designating opposing views as hate speech (in common with Islamists).
Carlie Hebdo regards laïcité, France’s secularism, as “the prime moral value” of France. One can mourn for their dead and admire their courage, but it’s difficult to sympathise with a magazine that publishes vulgar cartoons depicting a naked Muhammad as a porn star and the First and Second Persons of the Blessed Trinity in incestuous activity, and who, in response to sympathetic support, say “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”
G.K. Chesterton a Catholic and a distributist, and George Bernard Shaw an atheist and a socialist, had heated debates but remained friends because of their shared charity and humour. Today, intolerant would-be totalitarians only want to silence, coerce, and deride opponents.
With 40 years of below-replacement levels of children, an “elderly and haggard” Europe in solidarity with radical secularists won’t defeat radical Islam. You need a faith to defeat a faith.

Ross Howard | 16 January 2015  

Put another way, "an elderly and haggard France in solidarity with radical secularists", secularists who think it great sport to provoke the country's Algerian community, is well on the way to President Marine le Pen.

Paul | 17 January 2015  

Freedom of speech should not allow people to be offensive in any situation. A lot of people in 'western' countries think have a supercilious and arrogant attitude to people of a different race, colour and religion. The various terrorist activities in 'western' countries are the result of alienation of a minority of disadvantaged immigrants and their children. I encourage people to write to our political leaders and suggest that they be more inclusive and charitable to immigrants from places such as the Middle East, Asia Minor, Central Asia and Africa. Our schools and the media should acknowledge things such as the Islamic Eid festival, which is similar to the Christian Christmas festival. Our schools should teach the Arabic language and the history of the Arabic and Central Asian world.

Mark Doyle | 18 January 2015  

From Vittorio Messori in Corriere della Sera 14/1/15: "A French friend, a Catholic religious in Jerusalem and well-known biblical scholar, told me recently that in their convent, there was an old Muslim who had worked for them for a long, long time as a factotum. Honest, trustworthy and a hard worker, he had become part of the family and all the religious had great affection for him which was sincerely reciprocal. One Friday, the man came back from the mosque with a dejected air about him. The Superior of the House, after insisting, was finally able to make him talk. He said: “Today the Imam who conducts the prayers told us during the sermon that, on the day of the triumph of Allah and his Prophet, which will arrive soon, we will then rid this Holy City of Jews and Christians, and all of those infidels who don’t make a profession of faith at once will have to be killed. This is what the Koran wills and we are bound to obey it.” There was a pause, then: “But have no fear Father, you know that I love all of you. I know what to do if I have to kill you, I’ll find the way not to make you suffer.”

See also Clive Kessler's "Islam cannot disown jihadists driven by rage against history" in the Weekend Australian.

HH | 19 January 2015  

We walk a very fine line here, Pope Francis said it all in a film clip I saw on the ABC news. If I am deeply offended, of course I will hit out. To make the point it should not be necessary to provoke me so far.

Margaret McDonald | 19 January 2015  

The cornerstone of democracy is the recognition that in God's Kingdom there are Many Mansions, and consequently many paths that lead to each of them. Everyone tends to believe, mistakenly, that the path they know and have bonded to, is the only true path. Only when we recognise and respect that God is calling each individual along a path that is personally tailored to their situation will there be no need to legislate about free speech, because the problem that needs addressing is the bias and blind spot in the eye of those who cannot recognise God's Universal Personal Call. Once this is corrected no one will want to deprecate the sincere efforts of others to answer God's Call.

Robert Liddy | 19 January 2015  

There is a spectre haunting this article. This spectre is the authority that gets to determine the 'difference' between what is offensive and what isn't. Since this authority will inevitably take the form of governments, religious organisations and highly compromised media corporations, you are no longer talking about free speech.

Tony Thompson | 19 January 2015  

As Margaret says, I too think Pope Frank got it right; incitement to a predictable and not-unreasonable violence should be avoided in a civilised society. A difficult line to draw of course, but in Australia i think we have a pretty good balance though it also requires a sensible judiciary that I think got it possibly wrong in the Bolt case. I also believe that it is un-Australain not to show your (female) face in public, and if people want to live here that should be one rule that they need to accept. The rest of the medieval Arab clobber I can accept, even if
i don`t like much.

Eugene | 19 January 2015  

Truth hurts a lot of people. To state the truth in public is not bigotry but those whom it hurts will always label it as such. We should be free to express the truth rather than be forced through imposed "legal" silence to accept barbarism which is far more damaging to humanity than the painful truth.

john frawley | 19 January 2015  

Thanks Justin for this thoughtful and informative article (as always). When-ever civilian life (people, places, roles) become The theatres of war, an implosion of its social, cultural, spiritual (etc) fabric is an outcome. Civilian life implies civilised life ... but who has hurt who? Unless muslims AND christians AND jews
AND journalists/media etc walk alongside each other in life, we will only continue to implode. How much hate is being nurtured in Australian detention centres by our policies? How much hate is being nurtured by the language we use to describe others? There is nothing "civil" about hate. Isaiah 11:6 reminds us that we need to nurture the 'lamb' within to develop a gentle society; if the 'lion' is nurtured that is what we will produce. When will we all learn to say 'sorry' for the hurt caused to others and find ways towards middle ground (on all sides) without such hatred. Politicians, sport elites and religious leaders are in a great position to demonstrate civility ... let's start there in public life. At home let's be civil to each other in everyday life.

Mary | 19 January 2015  

A test to gauge the maturity of intelligence of young children is to set up a square table with sides facing North, South, East, and West respectively. At the East side a circle is placed, and at the West side, a triangle. A child, 'N", is seated at the North side, and another 'S', at the South side. Each is then asked what they see on the table. 'N' will naturally see a triangle on their right, and a circle on the left. 'S' will see a triangle on their left and a circle on the right. If they are conditioned to see things in these terms, a basis is laid for future dispute, as to whether the true position of the items are 'right' or 'left'. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all conditioned to see their beliefs as not only 'true', but as the only true way. When they express their version of 'Truth', it can be done in a way that is not offensive, or in an offensive manner. - not what is said, but the way it is expressed. With maturity will come reconciliation.

Robert Liddy | 19 January 2015  

Justin's article provides food for thought on this important topic. For a civilised society free speech is necessary but it is not an absolute value. Ethically it just seems wrong to caricature an esteemed leader of a religious and especially, right now, of Muslims, who are being vilified for being different.

I also found it interesting that so many political leaders assembled in France to condemn the killers (certainly justified) in the name of free speech and I wondered what 'free speech' means in the countries represented. Tony Abbott, for one, stated he was in France to defend free speech yet he is passing laws eroding free speech in Australia.

Anna | 19 January 2015  

Many thanks for a very thoughtful article which has succinctly identified the invidious situation that the world including Australia finds itself in the single minded pursuit of so called "free speech" with no thought of its disastrous consequences. All we can hope for is our governments and those in other parts of the world take your suggestions seriously so that we can live in a world that enjoys free speech without insulting and disrespecting religious and spiritual beliefs of people.

Ramdas Sankaran OAM | 19 January 2015  

Thanks Justin for encouraging this conversation.Even though I may have the right to say something,it may not be right to say it.The virtues of prudence and good judgement cannot be legislated.

Chris | 19 January 2015  

The latest, unnecessary, Charlie cartoon has already lead to the destruction of churches and to the killing of more Christians. Je ne suis pas Charlie.

John Bunyan | 23 January 2015  

"the usual broader Manichean media narrative of 'us' (the civilised world that believes in free speech) against 'them' (the murdererous, terrorist hordes who do not)"... and then, in the very same email alert in my in-box. Eureka Street rails against "Accommodating Indonesia's capital punishment barbarism". tinyurl.com/ktp7588 Hmm. Like the "Malaysia Solution" case, that almost - not quite, but almost- sounds like left-liberal Australians really, deep down inside, believe that even the more advanced Muslim-majority countries are more "barbaric", less respecting of human rights, than historically Christian/ secular countries like France and Australia. But no, they couldn't possibly believe that... why, that would be racist!* [* In the "Muslims are too a race" sense of the word]

Karl R | 23 January 2015  

"Free Speech" seems a good and effective slogan for a complicated thing, based on the value of every person. It is difficult to administer, whether by law or by social expectation and marginalisation. I agree it as a cornerstone of democracy. Another may be respect = a choice to engage in an honouring way even when we don't understand. Empathising as a human, not agreeing. Another cornerstone may be the right to challenge - respectfully but firmly - and be seriously considered. Without 'imposed empathy' an excuse to be silenced. I suggest the Foundation of Democracy is the absolute value of every person. Hence we should administer Free Speech according to this. Meaning that the rights to be safe, and even the right to grow and flourish are much greater than a supposed right to 'not be offended' but also than right to public speech. The state's job is to protect those with less power - so hate speech must be assessed and squeezed out. Let's make states that embody humanity. Not torture, not state-sponsored terror. PS. Here in NZ we remember the French State admitted conducting a terrorist act resulting in murder to stop the free speech of Greenpeace.

Martin Dickson | 27 January 2015  

A small correction: France does not ban the wearing of the hijab in public - it bans the wearing of visible signs of religious affiliation in state institutions.

Jan Pinder | 09 February 2015