Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Rant Insulting Charlie

(Hi! I'm back!)
Religious nutjobs storm the offices of a French cartoon magazine spraying bullets and fear and all of a sudden we all turn into Charlie.
I was hoping, as we all were, that ultimately something good would come out of the atrocity, like happened in Norway after the Utøya massacre four years ago when the nation came together, confirmed its liberal values and became the most admirable country on earth. There were encouraging signs with the unity marches (I was on the other side of the globe at the time, but there was a Je suis Charlie demonstration even in Auckland) and the awesome cover of the 14 Jan edition of Charlie Hebdo (and the fact that so many news outlets reprinted the cover with full knowledge that this will be considered a provocation by religious nutjobs).
What bothers me is that we are all so keen to be Charlie without much thought for what Charlie really is or was.
Freedom of expression is such a nice concept in theory. It is also nice when we are using it ourselves or someone is using it to criticise something we also see as a problem. But it is distinctly less nice when it is used to insult and offend us.
David Brooks at New York Times wrote a pertinent column pointing out that Charlie Hebdo would have failed in the United States and in Finland Helsingin Sanomat went further by noting that many of its cartoons would have been illegal. Charlie Hebdo was indeed in the business of dishing out insults in all directions, being a quintessential iconoclast.
Should we be protected from being insulted? Germans and Swiss seem to think so. Both countries have decided that to hell with the freedom of expression, the right not to be insulted is more important and protected by the CRIMINALISATION of insults.
Other countries are more restrained and only restrict certain types of insults. The legal systems I know best, namely English and Finnish, still contain blasphemy laws. The thinking appears to be that while our feelings in general are not worthy of protection, our religious feelings are somehow different and more important. The belief in the concept of “holy” is not just an everyday feeling, it is different, indeed holy in itself. Insulting it is worthy of punishment.
The European Court of Human Rights has been of no help, upholding the conviction of a neo-nazi for disseminating anti-Semitic materials* and a ban on a vulgar movie including Christian imagery.**
Herein lies, in my humble opinion, the problem. How can we condemn religious nutjobs for taking the law into their own hands and dishing out punishment for an act that our societies themselves consider unlawful and deserving of punishment? Isn’t that hypocritical? If we want to say, like some religious authorities do, that what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did was unacceptable, but that the right punishment was not a bullet in the head, then at least that is honest criticism. If we want to go further, and say that we are Charlie, thereby indicating that we endorse the right to freedom of expression to the extent of insulting everything and everybody, including things we hold dear,*** then we must look in the mirror and repeal the laws that restrict that freedom, whether blasphemy laws, general laws criminalising insults, or vague terrorism laws.
So far that appears to have happened only in Iceland, the smart little country that abolished its blasphemy law after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. France, by contrast, seems to be going in the opposite direction. Some of you will have heard about Dieudonné’s conviction for his thoughtless “Charlie Coulibaly” facebook comment, but more alarmingly I read in my Amnesty magazine that in total 117 people were charged in the two weeks following the attacks under France’s laws that criminalise “praising terrorism”, many of them summarily condemned. Calling the attack “France’s 9/11” appears to have been accurate in perhaps more ways than intended.
This is sad and counterproductive. Locking up islamists when they say hurtful things only furthers their sense of victimisation. If we really are for freedom of expression, we must be for all of it, including insults, and for everyone, including Muslims. When I see that happening, I will be able to conclude that freedom won and the bullets of those religious nutjobs really did hit their own foot.

*Kühnen v. Germany, App No. 12194/86 (1988).
**Wingrove v. United Kingdom, App No. 17419/90 (1996).
***Chapeau here for the French President François Hollande, for standing up so firmly for a magazine that dished out pretty outrageous insults at him.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a comment from my friend Sylvie that I am reposting with her permission:

    "Je suis tout à fait d'accord avec toi mais je crois que le choc était si grand que ça a été un grand élan de solidarité.Je suis pour la liberté d'expression mais il ne faut pas systématiquement appuyer là où ça fait mal.Il faut avoir sa propre auto censure.
    Je ne suis pas Charlie dans ce sens mais je suis Charlie pour l'expression libre."

    Sylvie makes a great point about "self censure". There is of course a huge difference between THE STATE prohibiting certain kinds of expression, and WE, CITIZENS, making stupid, hurtful comments. You can see e.g. my old rant of 27 March 2013 for my views on rape jokes. Summary: NOT FUNNY, but insensitive and hurtful, in some cases dangerous and most people who make them are idiots. Do I therefore think that rape jokes should be banned and those making them thrown in jail? No.

    (Exception: Found this funny rape joke by Amy Schumer recently: