Since the murders at the Charlie Hebdo office, there have been countless defences of the right of the magazine to publish its cartoons. However offensive, however inflammatory, they had a right to do so, and we have been told by many Western progressives that the proper way to express solidarity with the victims and to oppose the crimes is to reprint the most offensive of the cartoons.
In a way, this represents a strange understanding of how freedom of speech can be promoted. Yet it offers a kind of cathartic revenge in the face of terrorism. They want to kill us for saying offensive things? Well, we’ll say more offensive things.
It is true that freedom of speech cannot survive in the face of intimidation. It is also true that for freedom of speech to have meaning, people must be able and willing to say things that cause offence – even horror, disgust and fury. The flip side of this is that when people are offended, horrified and disgusted by the speech of others, the offended must be tolerant. They must be willing to put up with things being said that they find unbelievably awful, and find non-violent, non-oppressive ways of responding.
The underlying premise of a lot of commentary on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is that the Muslims just don’t get freedom of speech like us civilised and sophisticated Westerners. It is true that it is not just the terrorists who found the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo gratuitously offensive. So did many Muslims. For many Muslims, it is regarded as unacceptable to paint or draw an image of the Prophet, Mohammed. As was their style, Charlie Hebdo featured an issue of Mohammed posing naked as an aspiring porn star.
Countless Western commentators and politicians have replied: Muslims need to learn to better endure being offended. As a secularist, I would ordinarily propose that we all turn away from religion. Yet at times like this, I think we can all take some guidance from the Good Book: “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
The most obvious example of this fraudulent commitment to freedom of speech is from our beloved “Liberals” in power. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for example, has said "It would be a travesty if we were robust in our criticism of everything except that which might do us harm". Which might be a good point, until we remember that Abbott wanted to give a “red card” to “hate preachers”, like the Islamists of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Tony Abbott knows they haven’t broken any laws, but they dare campaign against “Australian values”, so the law was being changed and “hopefully” there will be a better result.
Abbott continued with his pseudo-passionate defence of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons: "Of course from time to time people will be upset, offended, insulted, humiliated. As a politician I sometimes pick up the paper and think, 'My God, this is so unfair' but it is all part of a free society.”
Except for that time Abbott was upset, offended, insulted, humiliated, by Bob Ellis. That time, Abbott sued for defamation. The lawsuit was successful, and the book’s first edition was then withdrawn by the publisher.
Or that time Treasurer Joe Hockey was upset and offended by accusations of corruption in Fairfax. Hockey responded by suing for defamation. Is that part of a free society? Or should journalists not engage in critical reporting on politicians?
Another supposed liberal from the Liberals, Attorney General George Brandis also leaped into a properly heroic pose: “The attack in Paris was not merely an exercise of barbarism, it was an assault on freedom of expression, which is the lifeblood of free societies.”
Remember what he has done to the lifeblood of Australia. Elaine Pearson, the head of Human Rights Watch in Australia, wrote that he has pushed for laws that “infringe on basic rights and that risk criminalising the legitimate actions of whistle-blowers, journalists and human rights activists.”
For example, anyone who discloses information about a “special intelligence operation” – and who knows what that means – can spend five years in jail, and 10 years if it endangers lives. Which means five years can be spent in jail for disclosing information that harmed no one, except for the interests of the government. A grim review of other assaults on our freedom by Senator Brandis was provided by social justice lawyer Lizzie O’Shea. Might we not show our support for the values of freedom of speech by campaigning against these assaults on Australia’s lifeblood?
Attacks on freedom of speech may sometimes come in the form of people being shot, but they can also come in other forms. One example – which attracted little attention – was the closure of Tracker magazine. Tracker was the largest Indigenous affairs publication in Australia, published by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. One fine issue had as its front cover story Chris Graham’s investigation of how Aboriginal people voted at the last federal election. The short version is that they mostly don’t like the Coalition very much. The Liberals didn’t like this, and so the NSW Indigenous Affairs Minister met with the leadership of NSWALC to express their concerns about Tracker and its story.
NSWALC then ceased funding Tracker and effectively ended the publication. When I emailed NSWALC, I received a statement in response which acknowledged that “Tracker has been very successful since its inception 3 years ago”. So why was it wound up? Well, there was little public interest in finding out, and so an independent and progressive magazine was quietly killed, with approximately zero public interest, let alone outrage.
Chris Graham, who founded Tracker, is now the editor (and in a sense, my boss) here at New Matilda. Having broken several huge stories, he has more than doubled the subscriptions since taking the helm. However, the Australian noted that the “legal bills have also skyrocketed”.
There can be little doubt that the stories Chris has broken have been in the public interest, and that their primary target has been the Abbott government. Yet legal bullying may put a tiny progressive media outlet out of business: though this has also attracted little concern. Evidently, whilst assaults on media outlets with guns and bombs shock certain liberal sensitivities, the use of repressive laws and deep pockets to silence critical media coverage passes mostly unnoticed.
But let us revisit Abbott’s comment about it all being a part of a free society that “from time to time people will be upset, offended, insulted, humiliated”. The courts have explicitly held that “the freedom of speech citizens of this country enjoy does not include the freedom to publish material calculated to offend, insult or humiliate or intimidate people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin”. That was in one of the many judgments made against the anti-Semitic Holocaust denier, Frederick Toben. Despite Australian law, Toben’s “conduct has been proved to be wilful and contumacious because he has steadfastly refused to comply with a law of the Commonwealth Parliament and refused to recognise the authority of this Court.” Toben was imprisoned for three months because he refused to obey court orders restricting him from publishing his thoughts on Jews and the Holocaust.
So are we all Frederick Toben? Do we all reprint his appalling writings? No. People who beat their chests about freedom of speech at times like this promote us saying things that offend them. The idea that we should respond to such an outrage by becoming more tolerant seems counter-intuitive. They’re the ones with the problem, not us. Yet if we are to defend freedom of speech, offending stigmatised minorities is hardly the only – or even the most important – way of doing so. Whilst I oppose attempts to silence Toben, I find his writings extremely offensive and hurtful. If you claim to be a passionate defender of freedom of speech, it is useful to examine how uncomfortable you are with reprinting the speech you defend. If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you are probably supporting something that you agree with. This doesn’t demonstrate a meaningful commitment to freedom of speech, any more than Toben did by insisting on his right to spew his ignorant ravings.
In the United States, a Nazi group decided they wanted to march through a small town full of Holocaust survivors. Their goal was provocation and media attention. The American Civil Liberties Union which hated their views, and lost many members defending them, showed what commitment to freedom of speech really means.
Yet strangely enough, it is at times like this when freedom of speech is most reviled as a principle.
For example, there is the case of Junaid Thorne. He wrote:
The cartoonists in #CharlieHebdo had made it a habit of insulting our Prophet – peace be upon him. They were warned and even threatened more than once. On one occasion, their premises was fire-bombed, yet they forbade to learn a lesson. I'm not condoning what happened, but I'm just stating that there must be a line/limit for freedom of speech, and when people or religions are being affected, the boundaries shouldn't be crossed.
Outrage ensued, he was accused of supporting the massacre in the Sydney Morning Herald, and the question was quickly raised as to whether he’d be prosecuted. Those who insist on the importance of freedom of speech in our societies decide it would be better demonstrated by reprinting Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, than by giving a platform to someone like Thorne.
Or take the case of Man Haron Monis, who was penalised for abusive letters he sent to the families of dead Australian soldiers. Will anyone reprint his letters, to show their support for freedom of speech?
There was a time when even Charlie Hebdo wasn’t Charlie Hebdo: when it offended Jews. Maurice Sinet was fired from Charlie Hebdo, and charged with inciting racial hatred, when he commented that a man who married a rich Jew and was rumoured to be converting to Judaism would “go a long way in life”. Clearly some offences are more offensive than others – even for a magazine that so many liberals are claiming targeted everyone equally.My view is that the most offensive thing Charlie Hebdo ever published was a response to the slaughter in Egypt by the Sisi government against unarmed protesters. Finding this mass murder or Muslim Brotherhood supporters amusing, they created a cartoon declaring (roughly) “The Qur’an is shit, it doesn’t stop bullets”. That is, they laughed at people who were murdered fighting for freedom and democracy. One can speculate what the reaction would be if a media outlet made a cartoon ridiculing the victims at Charlie Hebdo and their naïve belief in liberty and laïcité.
Freedom of speech can mean defending the speech of the provocative and offensive, but in and of itself, that is only one aspect of defending freedom of speech. Sometimes, we must also defend the intolerant.
Freedom of speech isn’t just about finding new and edgier ways of offending them, but also of looking more closely at our own boundaries of what can and can’t be said.
There are a lot of Westerners who seem to think it is really urgent that we engage in more mockery and ridicule of the Prophet. But if the massacre at Charlie Hebdo is going to be used as a spur to fight for freedom of speech more seriously, there are plenty of other battles at hand.