A few days ago, I took part in a very interesting panel discussion on the issue of free speech. The panel was prompted by the tragic events that took place in Paris a couple of weeks ago. One of the most interesting aspects of the panel was that despite our disagreements, none of the participants actually thought that the brutal murders at Charlie Hebdo actually raise any particularly interesting issues to do with freedom of speech as it is usually understood. As far as I am able to tell, hardly anyone thinks that the cartoons that the satiric magazine has published over the years warrant censorship. Even commentators who believe that there are cases in which the state appropriately steps in to limit freedom of speech – cases in which speech promotes hatred toward an entire group, for example — acknowledged that Charlie Hebdo steered clear of the line separating ridicule directed at religion, religious symbols and religious beliefs on the one hand, and contempt or hatred directed at a group of people, on the other. Whatever the precise boundaries of the legal right to freedom of speech, there is near unanimity, among the panelists that I discussed the issue with, and among the innumerable commentators I have been reading on line in the last two weeks, that Charlie Hebdo should be protected by it.
Debate has had to do not so much with whether Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish the kinds of cartoons that has been their stock in trade, but whether they were ethically justified to exercise that right in the case of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The argument, put forward by people whose opinions I respect immensely, including Jocelyn Maclure and Jean-Pierre Proulx is that though the cartoonists had the (legal) right to publish the cartoons of the Prophet, they (morally) ought not to have done so, knowing the offense that those cartoons would cause to Muslims both in France, and around the world.
As many have noted, however, there is no right in a democracy not to be offended. There is a right not to be defamed or libeled, and in Canada there is a right not to be targeted by hate speech. When speakers (or writers, or cartoonists) stay within those limits, the thought runs, there is an obligation on the part of those whose religious beliefs may have been targeted to be sufficiently thick-skinned to take it, rather than an obligation on the part of speakers to censor themselves for fear that they will offend.
I must admit that I have a certain degree of sympathy for this line of argument. But it is, to use a distinction that has become fashionable among political theorists, ideal-theoretical. That is, it does not take into account certain hard facts about our radically imperfect world.
Let me explain. We all know the hoary expression “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you”. The expression is meant to express to an individual or a group who has been the butt of a joke that the joke was meant, as paradoxical as this may sound, as a mark of friendship and solidarity rather than as a sign of contempt or disrespect. What is not always picked up by those who defend what may at first glance appear as an attack in this way is that the degree to which an individual or group can be expected to reasonably accept a joke as an instance of “laughing with” rather than one of “laughing at”, is a function not so much of the content of the joke, but rather of the position that the person making the joke stands in relative to the person or group who is at the receiving end of the joke, and of the general relationship of trust or distrust that obtains between speaker and receiver. When jokes are proffered among equals in a context of relative trust, it is quite easy to view them as expressing, and even as strengthening, a relationship of civic amity and trust. Laughter can strengthen bonds of civic amity. Our ability to laugh at one another without causing hurt is a sign that we have reached a high level of trust.
When laughter is directed by members of socially dominant groups at groups that are socially marginalized and targeted for discrimination, the situation is radically different. It’s much more difficult to expect groups that are the objects of discrimination to react to jokes directed at their most cherished symbols and beliefs as “laughter with” rather than “laughter at”. In such cases, jokes risk exacerbating division and distrust, rather than expressing and cementing civic friendship, as they can do when relations between groups are marked by trust. And this is the case, regardless of the intention of the person making the joke.
It’s hard to deny that Muslim religious minorities are in precarious positions in many Western countries. Pundits and politicians have been making political hay for years now by associating Muslim communities as a whole with the small groups of extremists who have been carrying out murderous attacks like the ones that killed 17 people in Paris. So whereas in general one would hope to live in a society in which trust and equality obtain to a degree sufficient to warrant accusations of thin-skin among those who are unable to accept jokes being publicly leveled at them, it is clear that we do not live in such a society. It isn’t unreasonable for Muslims to feel that caricatures like those that were Charlie Hebdo’s reinforce their marginalization, and thus, to feel hurt by them.
Does that mean that the caricaturists were morally wrong, although legally justified, to publish the cartoons poking fun at Islam? Again, things are more complicated. Let’s distinguish two possible interpretations of the cartoons lampooning Islam. According to a first, the only purpose of the caricatures is to shock and cause offense. On this view, they are largely devoid of cognitive content, and have as their sole function to present images calculated to cause hurt. According to a second, the intention is to make a point about some religious beliefs and symbols, but to do so in a shocking way that one can foresee will cause offence. On this interpretation, the cartoons are making a point (though obviously a point with which one might disagree) about religion, but doing so in a shocking manner. According to this second interpretation, form is inextricably tied to content. That is, the cartoonists would not be saying exactly the same thing were they to prescind from expressing themselves through shocking images, and to make their points in more stolid prose.
The interests at stake in the two ways of interpreting Charlie Hebdo are clearly different. Though there is a right to offend, civic friendship depends upon our exercising prudence when we do so, and we appropriately look askance at those who use the right in a manner so potentially destructive of the civic bond. But if there is real communicative intent that does not fall foul of legal strictures against hate speech, incitement to violence, libel and slander, and the like, my view is that we should stand up not just for the legal, but also for the moral right of people to make the points they want to make, even as we devote ourselves to showing up those positions as mistaken. It is one thing to say that someone is morally wrong in what she says; it is quite another to say that she is morally wrong to say something that we consider to be morally wrong.
Are the Charlie Hebdo cartoons a case of “pure” offence, or are they intended to communicate something (which we may believe to be mistaken) about religious beliefs and symbols? I’ll confess to not having surveyed the cartoons published in the magazine thoroughly enough to say, though my sense from perusing the archive in a somewhat unsystematic manner is that they probably conform to the second interpretation, rather than the first. If this is the case, we find ourselves in the messy situation of having to uphold not just the legal, but also the moral right of satirists to express thoughts and display images that they can reasonably foresee will offend, while at the same time understanding those of our fellow citizens who have felt that the cartoons exacerbate their feeling of marginalization.
How do we extricate ourselves from this conundrum? First, we have to combat the causes of social marginalization that make it the case that many Muslims feel unable, in the present context, simply to laugh off the caricatures, as they might feel able to do were they more confident of their place in Western societies. Second, we have to make sure that we do not count some groups’ free speech interests more heavily than we do that of others. Indeed, the French state has not been as fulsome in its defence of free speech as it might have been in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris. If we believe that the right to freedom of speech should include the right to communicate ideas offensively, then we should not tolerate that the offense of some counts more in the eyes of the state than does that of others.