In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo the western world has galvanized around the freedoms of expression and speech with religious zeal. Last Sunday leaders from a variety of countries made a show of devotion to these principles along with more than one million marchers on the streets of Paris to let the enemies of freedom know they would not be moved from the principles of freedom. Charlie Hebdo attacks
In line with the dogma and zealous devotion to the democratic principle of freedom of expression has been an elevation of the murdered cartoonists and staff of Charlie Hebdo to the ranks of heroes and martyrs.
Commedian Conan O’Brien explained “In this country we just take it for granted that it’s our right to poke fun at the untouchable, or the sacred but today’s tragedy in Paris reminds us, very viscerally, that it’s a right some people are inexplicably forced to die for.” While John Stewart of the Daily Show added that comedy should not be an “act of courage.”
Secretary of State John Kerry called the victims “martyrs for liberty.” President Obama issued a statement, “the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended.”
Voices throughout the western world began referring to the dead Charlie Hebdo staff members as “martyrs of freedom,” and social media hashtags as well as public demonstration placards read “Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie).
Prior to the January 7, attacks most Americans had never heard of Charlie Hebdo. The fallout from the satirical magazine’s sensational cartoons was well known but most people outside of France would have been hard pressed to name the source for these sensational cartoons. Most infamous among these were those that caricatured Islam’s founder Muhammad. According to Islamic tradition visual portrayals of Muhammad are forbidden and thus the cartoons were seen as blasphemous. Charlie Hebdo cartoons not only featured images of Muhammad but did so in a deliberately derogatory a manner. One cartoon featured Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. In another he is nude and featured in a series of pornographic poses.
Charlie Hebdo has always capitalized on the outrageous and provocative. The cartoons with derogatory images of Muhammad are the most famous because of the frequent violent responses that followed their publication. These were not the only outrageous or even the most provocative of what Charlie Hebdo has published through the years. Prior issues and covers have featured harsh anti-Semitic content. A 2012 cover featured a cartoon with Jesus and God sodomizing one another. An earlier cover featured a group of Catholic bishops doing the same.
After the terrorist attacks of January 7, many of these facts were forgotten or ignored in the rush to honor the “martyrs of freedom.” CNN’s 24 hour barrage of coverage in Paris featured a fade in of images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the dates of their death accompanying most commercial breaks. This was the cost of freedom.
To be sure, the dead of the Charlie Hebdo Paris office were victims of a terribly tragedy – but they were most certainly not heroes. They were cartoonists and journalists who capitalized upon the worst excesses of our modern media age with publications that amounted to barely more than bullying of religious groups along with others. Had the covers of Charlie Hebdo featured homosexuals, feminists, or other more politically popular minorities they might have been considered hate literature. (In fact, some of the anti-Semitic content has been considered exactly that in recent years.)
The victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks are not heroes because freedom of expression is not a universal or limitless principle of democracy – at least not in the manner which it has been lauded in the aftermath of the attacks. All freedoms have their boundaries and the freedoms of speech and expression are not an exception to this no matter how many in the western world would like to believe so. All freedoms must have boundaries because without such boundaries human civilization devolves into a survival of the fittest environment where the strongest, loudest voice is able to bully, dominate and subject all others.
There is an old adage (often mistakenly credited to former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) that states: “My right to swing my fists ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Freedom has its limits. When freedom is used to oppress and alienate those weaker than those holding the reigns of popular opinion we should recognize at the very least we are nearing such boundaries.
Freedoms have always had their limits and their price. Both of these are often linked together in the form of personal responsibility. A professor once explained to me, “Personal responsibility ends where government begins.” Personal freedoms are inextricably linked together and when we forfeit one we lose the other as well. If we do not manage personal freedom in tandem with personal responsibility the base forces of either nature or the government will seek to bring balance to the situation.
Certainly there is a time when freedom of speech and expression must be offensive for the sake of protesting wrong behavior and policies. In these instances the relationship to personal responsibility is not abandoned but it is emphasized even more. Statements which criticize and condemn entire people groups should be handled with the utmost care and consideration not in the same frivolous spirit as a dirty joke. We do not have the right to protest and tear down unless we also have the authority and capacity to preserve and build up.
At Charlie Hebdo their demonstrations of personal freedom and liberty had long passed the boundaries of respect for their fellow man. This is no excuse for the terrorist attacks but it is an explanation for why they were inevitable. A right to personal expression cannot be esteemed above a responsibility for respect for our fellow man. We often hear the admonition that freedom is not free. Indeed, it is not. The price of freedom is personal responsibility. Sometimes that price is paid in the blood of soldiers at war. Sometimes it is paid in the form of restraint or protest. Sometimes it is recognizing that a cheap laugh is not worth belittling people who see the world differently than we do.
As popular voices of western society cry Je Suis Charlie, I respond “I am NOT Charlie Hebdo.” Freedoms of speech and expression are not a license for careless, irresponsible and bullying behavior. It is a precious privilege guarded with the considerations of personal responsibility.
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