An absolute right to freedom of speech?

The signature image of the recent shocking events in Paris was the injured policeman, Ahmed Merabet, lying on the street. He was shot after rushing to the scene of the killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices. As he lay wounded on the ground one of the two Kouachi brothers exchanged a few words with him and then nonchalantly shot him in the head.
In that fleeting moment the indefensible outrage found its due image with disrespect sewn into its sinews: disrespect for free speech, for moral values and not least for the sacredness of human life. Once again, outrage seemed a weak term for our response to such callous disregard for minimal human standards.
In the circumstances the reputation and nature of the publication didn’t matter though I suspect many French people, especially Parisians, would have preferred a more worthy journal as the focus of their outrage. When freedom of speech, for centuries a core constituent of the French DNA – liberté, egalité, fraternité – was so ignominiously confronted, I suspect that if the staff of Le Monde, Paris Match or Le Figaro had been attacked, defending freedom of speech might be more amenable to some who had little time or respect for Charlie Hebdo.
Charlie Hebdo made its name by insulting the sincerely held religious views of the adherents of any and every faith. And not just insulting people’s faith but mocking them and baiting them. It seemed the defining impulse of the cartoonists employed by Charlie Hebdo.
A core principle of the Muslim faith is that the prophet Muhammad is held in such esteem that no image of him should ever be used. This is not a belief held by all Muslims but it’s a hallowed part of their belief system. Many visual depictions only show Muhammad with his face veiled, or symbolically represent him as a flame.
Yet once again the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo – with 5 million copies printed instead of the usual sixty thousand – has an image of Muhammad on its front cover. Such an attitude, giving the two fingers to Muslims everywhere, might be understandable in the circumstances but is hardly defensible.
The notion that freedom of speech embraces a duty to not just offend but gratuitously insult the sincerely held beliefs of Muslims (Christians, Catholics, etc) is non-sensical. Every civilised society struggles to achieve a balance between freedom of expression and the right to privacy, between rights and responsibilities, between individual good and the needs of society.
Charlie Hebdo was driven by a compulsive need not just to offend but to bait those they offended – regardless of the consequences. It mocked and sneered at those who objected to its callous insults and it seemed to have no sense of the knock-on implications for the safety of the innocent or the implicit fuelling of the threat posed, in France and throughout the world, by the terrorist activities of extreme Muslim groups.
Cartoonists, of course, are a strange breed. The importance of their art is presumed to trump any other consideration, like fairness or respect, even in some cases life and death. In the twilight world they inhabit anything is grist to their mill, nothing is sacred and respect is a synonyn for lack of courage.
Last April, the Irish Times cartoonist, Martyn Turner, depicted three ‘singing’ priests outside a confessional who indicated their reservation about breaking the seal of confession in the matter of the mandatory reporting of child abuse. Turner had them singing ‘I’ll do anything for children (but I won’t do that)’. And in the bottom corner was an addendum:
‘But there is little else you can do for them (children) except stay away from them’.
That codicil effectively alleged that every priest in Ireland was a danger to children.
The response, though muted enough in the circumstances  – after all, who would defend priests publicly now? – led to an Irish Times editorial in which it indicated that it apologised for the hurt caused by ‘a regretted editorial lapse’. ‘Civilised debate’, the editorial continued, ‘requires the eschewing of ad hominem argument, playing the ball, not the man, and avoiding crude stereotyping’. Amen to that.
Fair enough and credit where credit is due but the truth is that if you get used to playing the man, it’s understandable if the finer points of the game get moved to the side-line and spectacular lapses in judgement and standards ensue.
I pointed out here at the time that while it’s understandable that mistakes are made, or as the editorial puts it ‘things fly under the editorial radar’, if the debasement of a group like Catholic priests is taken for granted, the radar is usually not as carefully patrolled as comments about, say, the sometimes litigious businessman Denis O’Brien. The truth is that in Ireland now, as many have noted, Catholic priests are probably the only group that can be reviled so publicly.
That’s not to say either that Turner’s folly should diminish an appreciation for the vital importance of a free press in a democratic society or the need for the media to analyse and dissect public issues, including the crimes and misdemeanours of individuals, institutions and religions. And it’s not to compromise the importance of satire in the public forum. But it’s to say that when a line has been crossed and those who publicly hold the higher moral ground are seen to have spectacularly failed to live up to their own standards that the hard truth should be named – in everyone’s interest.
Interestingly, the Irish Times decided not to print the cover of the latest Charlie Hebdo issue. However, I have to say that I’m not confident that their sensitivity in the face of the latest evidence of the French tradition of robust satire and the Muslim terrorist threat will extend towards any new-found respect for the religion of the vast majority of its readers. Not from Martyn Turner anyway, if his comments on Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk nonchalantly dismissing the concerns of the Catholic Church are any indication of parity of esteem.
While the right to free expression is important and should be defended, it’s not an absolute right. And those who are prepared to hurt and offend should not see it as a fail-safe or catch-all defence for their bigotry, of whatever hue.

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One Comment

  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Thanks, Brendan. What I’ve seen on-line of Charlie Hebdo certainly conveys an impression of deliberate insult and offence, and very deliberate intolerance of what others hold sacred – this while exercising their own “sacred” right to free expression. The killings are totally wrong, but sadly, those who carried them out exercised their freedom of expression as they understood it.
    The Irish Times cartoon Brendan refers to can be seen at, where the Thirsty Gargoyle (Greg Daly) comments on the Charlie Hebdo matter.

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