The fallen cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are being lionized as defenders of freedom of expression. They are indeed victims of a horrible and obviously immoral outrage, but should we be upholding them as defenders of freedom of expression?
They were killed for their expressions, but what was the point of these expressions? Was the content important and worth defending or was it merely an instance of the sort of inflammatory, insulting expression of anti-Islamic sentiment that is always hiding under the surface of Western societies? If the latter, then we should no more uphold these victims as heroes of freedom of expression than we would celebrate members of the Ku Klux Klan who are attacked and killed while marching for their views.
Despite what we might think about ourselves, we generally don’t celebrate freedom of expression in all its forms. Rather, we celebrate champions of freedom of expression when we view the expression as worthwhile because it conveys important messages. Hence, if we celebrate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as heroes of freedom of expression, we are implicitly endorsing their message. But should we?
Many Westerners have a high degree of tolerance for insults to religion, for a variety of reasons. Some have no religious commitments or very casual commitments. In part, this is due to financial prosperity and the fading importance of religion as a source of meaning. Even among deeply religious individuals in the West there seems to be a relatively high tolerance for insult, and this has historical roots that go back to the Reformation.
The gradual march toward liberalism has generated a noisy and impartially offensive public sphere: no one is spared from insult. Consequently, I doubt that many serious Catholics take much notice or offence at insulting depictions of the Pope. For the sake of sanity, they have learned to just shut it out. We may think that Muslims reading the Charlie Hebdo comics should probably respond just the same way as a Catholic would to a mocking comic of the Pope. Why can serious Muslims not simply ignore it? The answer lies in historical, cultural difference: ignoring such messages is something we have learned from our particular, Western history.
Westerners cannot directly put themselves in the position of a non-Western Muslim viewing these cartoons, but they can inform themselves of what the cartoons look like from a non-Western Muslim viewpoint by learning about Islamic history. When anti-Islamic expression is taken against the background of actions by Western governments that have had huge political and economic consequences for the Muslim world, such as the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, their meaning changes radically. It suggests total disregard and contempt for all things Muslim. It suggests that the Western colonial powers are out not only to steal, but also to tread on the things held by Muslims to be most important.
We can, and should, defend freedom of expression in principle. This means defending even that which is deeply offensive to some. But we don’t have to endorse the content that we protect. We sometimes defend the principle of freedom of expression while holding our noses at the particular content that is to be defended for the sake of that principle.
This is the situation I find myself in with regard to some of the Charlie Hebdo material; it is insulting to people with whom we in the West have a history. Muslims deserve the respect of non-Muslims; we need to mend fences with the vast majority of Muslims who are not carrying out attacks of any sort and just want peace, sovereignty and respect.
For that reason we should be cautious in lionizing Charlie Hebdo and be sensitive to what our exercise of freedom of expression means to people interpreting messages against the background of a very different history.
We can do so while no less forcefully condemning the Paris attacks.
- John Hacker-Wright is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph