In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were a lot of people, like me, who made statements about the need to stand up for free speech. And immediately after that, there were people who said,”um, excuse me…” and pointed to the litany of restrictions to free speech going on at this very moment.
France in particular has cracked down on hate speech, anti-semitism in particular, and has even gone so far as to jail a controversial comedian. Fear of Islamic extremism has led these countries to crack down especially hard on Muslims, which might explain why a Muslim friend of mine posted a link on facebook to an article denouncing ‘free speech fundamentalism’.
I disagreed with that article, and I object to the term, since calling people fundamentalist is meant to tie them to dogmatic ideologues, but I can’t deny that I’ve been thinking about it all week. I guess I fall pretty close to being a ‘free speech fundamentalist’. As I’ve said before, free speech is not a buffet.
To me, there are two separate but related arguments at work in the debate about free speech post-Charlie Hebdo.
First, there are those who argue for moderation. The pope, for instance, and certain Muslim groups. Attacks on religion are perceived as being beyond the pale. It’s fine and good to argue about freedom of expression, but when you’re using that freedom to pick on an already disfavoured minority (Muslims in France), it comes across as unsporting.
I’m sympathetic but unyielding on this point, which has been sometimes painted as freedom of religion versus freedom of expression. Except that’s a false dichotomy. Freedom of religion means the freedom to practice your religion without interference. It doesn’t mean freedom from hearing negative things about your religion or seeing things you consider blasphemous. There is not, and should not be, a right to not be offended.
You can, however, make a fair point that those who would publish deliberately inflammatory material, say cartoons of Mohammed, are assholes. And you’d be perfectly justified in doing so. But there’s very few arguments against assholes that justify restrictions on their freedom of expression. Argue with them, ignore them, mock them back, but don’t shut them down.
Second, there are those who argue that in spite of all the calls to defend free speech, there is a hypocrisy at work, because European countries are limiting that freedom for some groups. That’s absolutely a fair argument. I’ve talked about why I have problems with hate-speech laws before, and that I even don’t agree with making holocaust denial illegal. Basically, making certain kinds of speech illegal only justifies them in the minds of certain segments of the population. Rather than exposing and ridiculing them, you’re letting them fester in certain dark corners.
But the issue of hypocrisy in the application of free speech, which has been used to argue against ‘free speech fundamentalists’, only serves to underscore the point. The problem here isn’t too much free speech, it’s not enough. Or it’s the uneven application, anyway.
There are, of course, limits to free speech (the famous “shouting fire in a crowded theater argument). But arguing for moderation, or being uneven in the application by targeting certain groups, who have less free speech than others, are both unhealthy restrictions on a fundamental right. If believing that makes me a free speech fundamentalist, so be it.