"At the end of the day, in a free society people have to be free to offend each other.”
--British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Just because as a journalist and a citizen, I have the right to offend, should I offend?
I’ve been wrestling with this question since the murder of twelve cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, by radical Islamist terrorists two weeks ago. The gunmen carried out the attack in retaliation for insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. To be clear: I completely reject as evil the notion that anyone is justified in killing another human being for expressing an idea, whether “offensive” or not.
I’m a radical first amendment advocate. Other than speech which seeks to provoke hatred or violence, or is a direct threat to others, humans must have the right to free speech, especially unpopular speech. In the words of the French philosopher Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Yet as a newspaper columnist who has written a weekly opinion piece for almost twenty years, I’m ever aware of the power of the pen; that when I express an idea in a newspaper or a blog, in public, it always has the potential to cause harm. To hurt another person. To malign an idea. To tear down an individual. To spread a lie or rumor. To mock a belief which another holds as sacred. To rhetorically “Yell ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theater” just to see what kind of response is evoked.
With free speech comes great responsibility. Many weeks I’ve thrown out the first draft of a column because in reviewing it, I see it does not add to the common good or constructive discussion about an idea. Or I reread my first pass at an opinion and recognize it’s more about my selfish need to be angry, or self-righteous, or even insulting. So I always edit. I self-censor. I delete. Then I write again, and hope that what I opine is thoughtful and then I send my words out into the public marketplace of ideas.
I hope that what I write, in a very small way, makes the world better. Moves the debate forward. Brings a cause to light. Changes someone’s mind. Inspires discussion and action. Educates and enlightens. Some weeks I succeed. Others I fail. But I’d like to like to think I try my best to use my words to build up and not just tear down.
This is why I love free speech. It gets us talking, wondering, and debating. It challenges us to be in peaceful dialogue with other people, especially those with whom we disagree. It reminds us that the best society is one in which a free press empowers a free people to think. Free speech gives an outlet for human expression. It allows humanity to use the language of ideas and not violence, to build the world.
So yes in free speech, I also have the right to offend a person, a faith, a politician, a sacred cow, a race, a class of people, anything, any one. But: should I then do so?
I’ve seen the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which have stirred up so much controversy. As a person of faith, I can report these images equally mock Jews, Christians and Muslims. The cartoons take sacred symbols and icons—like the cross, Jesus, a Star of David, the Prophet Mohammed, God—and depict them in intentionally shocking ways, at least to my sensibilities. They are not high art, not elegant or nuanced in their use of satire. They are kind of like Mad Magazine gone radical: sophomoric, crude, visual sledge hammers swung down hard to make a point. I’ll not be subscribing anytime soon. Give me The Onion instead, the closest comparable satirical magazine in our country.
Back to France. One week after the killings, Charlie Hebdo published a new edition and there, right on the cover, was another cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. The magazine was a huge, immediate hit, selling out across that country. The French stood in line in the pre-dawn light for hours, all in hopes of securing a copy. The publishers, who normally sell 60,000 copies per issue, are now running seven million copies for worldwide distribution, a record for France.
And free speech advocates cheer every where. And some people of faith are insulted, and hurt, and angry, again, every where. And our world does not feel more peaceful or more hopeful or more understanding or more enlightened, after all which has happened.
Yes. I will still defend to the death the right of free people to offend others in word and in speech. We can all be offensive. But…must we? Will we?