Rights and How to Use Them – Part I (of probably a million)

As I have noted before, I occasionally have thoughts that exceed 140 characters. Or that are a little complex and I need to work out – I usually find writing is useful for that.

Obviously, the big news of the week is the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in Paris known for publishing comics that push the envelope, particularly when it comes to mocking Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

The attack struck at the core of free speech. So let’s talk for a minute about what that means.

The right to freedom of speech or expression is enshrined in the constitutions of most liberal democracies. In the United States, it’s the basis of the First Amendment. In Canada, Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for freedom of expression. In Britain, it’s part of the fuzzy cloud of unwritten constitutional principles – but it’s definitely there.

Freedom of speech in these contexts protects you from exactly one thing: government interference with your speech (censorship). With very few exceptions (such as uttering threats or inciting violence) the government can’t arrest you for what you write or say. And since the government holds a monopoly on legal imprisonment, neither can anyone else.

Non-governmental actors, however, are perfectly free to punish you for your speech, within the bounds of law. If you make anti-Semitic rants on your company’s website, your employer is entitled to decide that you are not a good spokesperson for the company and fire you. If you express an opinion on the internet, other people can call you out on it. That’s not censorship – it’s the social consequence of your speech. The law does not protect you from criticism.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an example of a non-governmental reaction to speech so extreme as to become a form of censorship. The objective of this kind of attack is to make people afraid to exercise their right of free speech and shut down discussion completely.

It is fundamentally and unequivocally wrong.

Unfortunately, that point –  the fact that silencing anyone with violence or threats of violence is unconscionable and unexcusable – has gotten a little entangled with content. That is a grave error, but an easy one to make in the heat of the moment.

Charlie Hebdo’s readers and supporters say that the magazine belongs to a long and venerable tradition of satirical magazines in France, a tradition that North Americans simply don’t understand. They say that Charlie Hebdo is not xenophobic or racist, but fundamentally anti-religion, mocking all religions equally.

That doesn’t jive with what little I’ve seen from the magazine, with which I was admittedly unfamiliar only two weeks ago. Even if Charlie Hebdo targeted all religions (and I understand from some sources that Christian-focused cartoons have been rejected as being likely to cause outcry), it relies on racist stereotypes and caricatures to represent those religions. Additionally, some non-religious cartoons are also offensive, depicting Boko Haram-abducted women as pregnant welfare queens, or Black politicians as monkeys.

Let me be clear. I find those types of images offensive, racist, and in extremely poor taste. But I completely support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish them without fear of violence.

In fact, this precise situation makes Charlie Hebdo an excellent test for support of free speech rights, especially from the left. If you do not support the right of people whose views you abhor to express those views, you do not believe in free speech. It’s that simple.

When someone says something that is wrong, offensive, or just plain stupid, the proper response is to use more speech to oppose it. I wouldn’t buy Charlie Hebdo. And as I have already demonstrated, I’ll criticize its content. But I will “defend to the death” their right to publish idiocy, if they so desire.

On a broader basis, it seems to me that there is little value in attempting to ban the expression of any idea, barring fairly clear incitements to violence or threats. Even hate speech laws, for all they intend to protect minorities, may actually do the opposite. Racism, sexism, and all the other -isms and -phobias exist in the people’s minds. When those opinions are illegal, they don’t go away, but are simply driven underground. Their proponents can paint themselves as an oppressed minority, whose “truth” is being hidden by the powers that be. It seems far more effective to let people spout stupid ideas and then tell them they’re wrong. Let the marketplace of ideas sort it out.

There is one caveat to this approach. Critical thinking is necessary for individuals to consider and assess the ideas floating around the marketplace. The modern education system, however, does not spend nearly enough time and energy cultivating this skill in young minds, so that the populace is capable of navigating the marketplace of ideas without getting lost or falling prey to charismatic charlatans.

That’s my “cold take”.

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