Ever since earning a master’s in journalism in 1994, I’ve struggled with whether hate speech is—or should be—protected under the First Amendment. For me, protection of hate speech has never been so black and white as it seems to be for others. Hate speech was briefly discussed in our journalism law class, but back then, fewer people were going on mass public killing sprees, and no one had flown any planes into buildings. So after many years of sitting on the fence, I’m ready to come down on the side of yes-and.
In my blog about North Korea and the film “The Interview,” I argued that just because we have the freedom to say whatever we want, doesn’t mean we should. Particularly difficult is this: At what point does having the right to express ourselves impinge on another’s right to not feel harassed? And if we do feel harassed, is it because of our own baggage, or is it because the offending expression is really hate speech with the potential to threaten civil society? I don’t know the answer and apparently neither do a lot of the Western world’s lawmakers. We don’t know because there is no simple answer, despite that many people strongly side one way or the other. Even the United States government struggles with how to define and respond to hate speech. The biggest problem is what might be considered hate speech for one group is considered humor for another. Whose opinion do we go with?
According to a recent article in the Washington Post, France is not exactly a bastion of free speech. For one, Holocaust denial is illegal (but not denial of the Armenian genocide). To quote the article, France has laws “criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation.” The article also mentions how those laws appear to be unequally applied and seemingly not in favor of Muslims.
The American media—and I’m guessing that of many Western European countries—would think twice about the implications of publishing harshly satirical cartoons singling out any specific ethnic group, like Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians, or publishing anything too deeply offensive to Christians or Jews. So why does the Western world seem to think Muslims are fair game?
While many French people stand in unity declaring “Je suis Charlie Hebdo,” millions of French Muslims do not want to be Charlie nor want to defend it. Do we tell 5 million French Muslims (and millions more across the globe) to deal with their personal baggage, to get over it, it’s just a joke? Ironically, under French law, some of what Charlie Hebdo publishes appears to be illegal, yet French courts sided with the magazine in a charge brought against it for such speech. I disagree with France’s criminalizing hate speech, but I unequivocally support the spirit of the law.
So why defend hate speech? To prevent driving it underground and resurfacing in much more insidious ways. Remember what festering hate led to during WWII? Best to shine a light on issues that have potentially dire consequences for society in profoundly disturbing ways. We can’t begin to heal hatred by refusing to look at it. We can’t outlaw a person’s viewpoint, whether we agree with it or not. But we also can’t just let hateful or hurtful things be stated without addressing the potential consequences.
While I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish what it wants, simultaneously I agree with a statement by Al-Azhar, a prestigious Sunni Islam university in Cairo: The drawings “do not serve the peaceful coexistence between peoples and hinders the integration of Muslims into European and Western societies.” Of course, neither does murder serve the peaceful coexistence between peoples. Many of us would like to see a stronger rebuke from the Muslim community for these extremist acts, but have we provided a safe arena for them do so? The article referenced above notes how Muslims abhor this violence yet feel marginalized by a Western world that mocks, rejects, and threatens them.
Self-censorship is not the same thing as denying ourselves the right to freedom of expression. If anything, we don’t practice self-censorship enough. Just open any newspaper to read a story about a public figure having stuck his or her foot firmly between the chompers. Freedom of expression does not come without responsibility and accountability, which is why sometimes it’s best to keep potentially harmful thoughts to yourself. We live in a world where tensions between many groups have boiled over—and have proved deadly over and over again. Why not extend an olive branch instead to those who feel villainized and marginalized? Yes, some wouldn’t accept it; but there are many millions more who would, many more who feel like strangers in both their homeland and their adopted country, who feel that expressing their religion, for example, could get them beat up or worse.
We are all Charlie Hebdo, only in ways that we might not realize. Quantum physicists, and spiritual mystics throughout the ages, know that all things in the universe are connected. On the quantum level, when we hurt one person, we hurt everyone. We all have the capacity to wound with our beliefs, actions, and words. Conversely, we all have the capacity to lift up others with our beliefs, actions, and words. Thus, I stand in solidarity and mourn with the people of France as well as with the peaceful Muslims offended by the unpleasant portrayal of their Prophet. How would Christians feel if Jesus were substituted for Muhammed?
Yet, what happened at Charlie Hebdo is about more than free speech; it’s a chilling reflection of who we’ve become and a hopeful reminder that we can become something better by realizing our connection. How many more horrific acts of terror must we experience before we accept the inescapable truth that we are all connected? When will we begin valuing human lives more than our freedom to say whatever we want, about whomever we want, whenever we want?
What any one of us does to any one person affects the rest of the world, including ourselves. Let’s use this tragedy to examine our personal fears of the “other” with the intention of beginning to act in ways that serve the peaceful coexistence among all peoples.