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Freedom of Expression: the new fundamentalism

11 January 2015

One of the striking things about the Charlie Hebdo murders was the media spin. It was presented through the lens of “freedom of expression”.

For example Charlie Hebdo attack: Paris terrorists aimed at freedom of expression, we must defend it – LA Times:

…the terrorists, who reportedly said they were avenging the prophet Muhammad, were aiming not only at individuals but at an idea: that freedom of expression includes the right to criticize and, yes, ridicule the cherished beliefs of others. Charlie Hebdo certainly had done that in publishing cartoons lampooning Muhammad and mocking Islam.

This meme was repeated again and again on TV by talking heads, in soundbites, and in responses by politicians and other public figures. Here are some examples:

Only a few voices from the margins of Western society questioned this narrative: “Free Speech” hypocrisy in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo – World Socialist Web Site:

Throughout Europe and the United States, the claim is being made that the attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo was an assault on the freedom of the press and the unalienable right of journalists in a democratic society to express themselves without loss of freedom or fear for their lives. The killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and editors is being proclaimed an assault on the principles of free speech that are, supposedly, held so dear in Europe and the United States. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is, thus, presented as another outrage by Muslims who cannot tolerate Western “freedoms.” From this the conclusion must be drawn that the “war on terror”—i.e., the imperialist onslaught on the Middle East, Central Asia and North and Central Africa—is an unavoidable necessity.

One thing that immediately struck me about it was that it was a virtual replay of the Western media spin on the Pussy Riot affair of three years ago. Back then I blogged about it here: Pussy Riot, freedom of expression and Western hypocrisy | Khanya, and what I said then could equally well apply to the Western media spin on the Charlie Hebdo murders.

It is the repetition that makes it look like a meme or a theme, a cultural phenomenon that needs closer examination. Note that I am not talking about what Pussy Riot actually did, but rather the Western media response to it. I’ve written about their actual doings here, and that is a different question, just as the actual content of Charlie Hebdo and the reasons for the killings is a different question. The question here is the “freedom of expression” meme, and the way it plays out in the Western media.

It was someone writing in our own Mail & Guardian here in South Africa who put his finger on it: Charlie Hebdo: God isn’t like freedom of speech | News | National | Mail & Guardian:

Key to these views is the idea that belief in God and advocating freedom of speech are the same thing and should be subject to the same protections. On Twitter, the platform where In My Humble Opinion is a four-letter word, and where asinine has become a 140-character sentence, someone tweeted that it was ironic that those who proclaim that there should be no sacred cows also insist that freedom of speech is sacred.

God may not be like freedom of speech, but in some of the examples I have seen and cited, there are some to whom freedom of speech is like God. They talk of it in the way people talk of a religion, and a fundamentalist religion at that.

So what we have here is a clash of religions, a clash of fundamentalisms, or even, horror of horrors, a clash of civilizations: Charlie Hebdo and the “Clash of Civilizations” – The New Yorker:

At times like this, inevitably, there is a tendency to view things in Manichean terms, and to suppose, as Huntington postulated, that we are engaged in a “Clash of Civilizations,” with us on the one side, and the Muslims—wherever they are—on the other. But to interpret things in such black-and-white terms is to distort reality. Although Islam largely missed out on the Reformation and the Enlightenment, a point frequently made by its critics, it is far from a monolithic religion.

Actually the New Yorker got it wrong; Huntington did not postulate a dualistic clash between us (whoever “us” may be) and Muslims. What he postulated was that that there are nine civilizations in the world, and that in the post-Cold War world conflicts would tend to take place on the boundaries between those civilizations. But that too is a different question — see here.

So how should we approach “freedom of expression”? Here’s one more reference to another blog post of mine — Je ne suis pas Charlie — which has some introductory comments on fundamentalism, including Islamic fundamentalism and Freedom of Speech fundamentalism. It also reproduces the section of our constitution dealing with Freedom of Expression, which says that everyone has the right to Freedom of Expression, with some exceptions. These exceptions are:

(a) propaganda for war;
(b) incitement of imminent violence; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

Now fundamentalists might not like the idea of exceptions. One characteristic of fundamentalists is that they like things that they regard as fundamental to be absolute, and therefore unconditional, with no exceptions, nothing that will dilute the sacred principle.

But note also that the exceptions are not like the “hate speech” laws that are found in some countries. The do not make the exceptions illegal. They merely make clear that there are some things that you do not have a right to do, and so if someone objects, you cannot claim that they are trying to deprive you of a constitutional right.

I’m happy with that, though perhaps some of the Freedom of Expression fundamentalists might not be.

Our constitution also guarantees Freedom of Religion. I’m happy with that too. I can still remember the days, a little over 20 years ago, when we didn’t have either, and so I’m glad we have them now.

Some think that Freedom of Expression is particularly important in order to be able to attack religion. An online friend, whom I have never met face to face but have discussed things with in online forums for twenty years and more, who was an atheist as long as I’ve known him, but seemed to have become a much more militant one lately, explained the change as follows:

Religion has been protected by a social taboo. Questioning it is considered impolite. It is similar to the reaction my republicanism often gets: it is bad manners to be rude about the Queen. The taboo is being challenged to communicate to those who have lived in a haze of unquestioned and somewhat fearful religious certainty that their ideas are *not* above question – that they *are* challengeable.

If I understood him correctly, he felt it was almost a duty to attack religion — that it wasn’t merely something that he could do, but something that he should do. I don’t know if he is a Freedom of Expression fundamentalist, but I can see that many people who take that view might be.

And so at this point, I must part from him, and others like him. What follows is specifically Christian, and is addressed to my fellow Christians. Actually it is narrower than that, because I’m sure that members of the Westboro Baptist Church would emphatically reject it. If anything it is trying to think about this from within an Orthodox Christian moral framework, and so will not much sense to those who reject such a moral framework. They are welcome to read it, but, since they have a different mioral framework, from a different source, it probably doesn’t apply. And even for Orthodox Christians, I’m not being morally prescriptive, just thinking aloud, presenting half-baked ideas in the hope that others can help to bake them.

So I do not believe that just because we are free to say something, we are under an obligation to come right out and say it.

Some years ago there was a Christian evangelist by the name of Reinhard Bonnke. He was planning an evangelistic campaign in Northern Nigeria, where most of the people are Muslim, and in preparation for it had distributed a lot of pamphlets attacking Islam. These pamphlets sparked off riots in which about 100 Christians were killed. Reinhard Bonnke’s aeroplane did not land there, because it would have been too dangerous, so he flew on and left the local Christians to suffer the consequences of his exercise of freedom of expression.

Chtistian missiologists study such examples of evangelism and point out that they are culturally insensitive, and therefore likely to be counter-productive, as it certainly was in this case. Some would say that that was not evangelism, but proselytism. But others denounce notions of “cultural sensitivity” as mere “political correctness”, and so think they should be ignored. One problem with that is that notions of “political correctness” are pretty meaningless unless you are aware of the power structures that are operating in that society. Unlike the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the Christians who died in Northern Nigeria on that occasion died for someone else’s freedom of speech, not for their own.

climacusWhen people speak of an absolute right to Freedom of Expression, and defend it in all circumstances and against all comers, it often looks indistinguishable from a defence of bullying. One occasionally reads reports of young people who committed suicide because they were subjected to verbal harassment on the Internet. No one else laid a hand on them, they laid violent hands on themselves. And the bullies who harassed them were simply exercising their freedom of expression.

It is good that we have a right to Freedom of Expression, and that it is protected by law. But just because we have such a right, it is not obligatory for us to exercise it at all times and in all circumstances. All the Orthodox spiritual fathers and mothers tell us that love should be at the heart of things. And we should also not talk too glibly of love. As St John Climazcus says,

I have heard people slandering, and I have rebuked them. And these doers of evil replied in self-defense that they were doing so out of love and care for the person whom they were slandering. I said to them ‘Stop that kind of love, otherwise you will be condemning as a liar him who said “Him that privily talked against his neighbour, did I drive away” (Ps. 100:5). If you say you love, then pray secretly, and do not mock the man. For this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord. But I will not hide this from you (and of course be careful, lest you judge the offender) Judas was in the company of Christ’s disciples, and the thief was in the company of murderers. Yet it is a wondrous thing, how in a single instant, they exchanged places.

It is sometimes better to do wrong for the sake of love than to insist on doing right because of our lack of i8t.



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