- Why do 12 deaths in Paris provoke more anger than 2,000 in Northern Nigeria?
- The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a direct attack on the right to free speech.
- Freedom of speech includes freedom to criticise and freedom to offend.
- We must not let the extremists, of any ilk, dictate how we relate to each other.
A week ago, I posted on current affairs for the first time. I was shocked and angry about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and felt the need to say something. Since then, gunmen have killed another five people in France and commentary has snowballed. Every conceivable viewpoint has been aired to death. I’m not posting because I have anything original to contribute but to assuage the sense that what I posted last week was incomplete. What follows is self-indulgence. If you read on, you have been warned!
I posted in anger. If I was angry, I should be brutally honest about why. Twelve violent deaths are a tragedy, but it would be disingenuous to tell me that the violence alone drove me into a righteous rage. In the same week, Boko Haram killed 2000 people in Nigeria, at least according to Amnesty International. Every death was a tragedy. It made me sad before I flicked to another news story, but I can’t say it made me angry. Anger would have been futile. I accepted long ago that I can’t do anything about such tragedies.
Perhaps I was angry because it happened in Paris. I live in London, so it was close to home. Attacks have been predicted for years now, and the the other shoe just dropped. Paris isn’t far from London, geographically or culturally, so there was more than a hint of fear in my reaction. If it happened there, it could happen here. I could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s nothing like fear to stoke anger.
But while I suffer from an excess of imagination at times, I don’t really expect my afternoon in a cafe to be interrupted by an AK-47. I wasn’t afraid enough to explain my anger.
I have more Nigerian friends than French friends, so cultural similarity only goes so far to explain why I reacted to the attack on Charlie Hebdo so much more strongly than Boko Haram’s atrocities.
The truth is that while fear and proximity may have made me feel involved, what made me angry were the two most obvious things about the attacks. On one level, it was an attempt to demonstrate that any of us who write the wrong thing are fair game. On another, it was an attempt to drive a wedge between people who the extremists hate to see getting along.
So let’s unpack both of those.
What is free speech
When I posted last week, I chose Dave Brown’s cartoon as an illustration rather than Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Mohammed. I considered publishing those cartoons because at the time, I wanted to show solidarity with those who challenge violence with words and images. I decided not to because I found the cartoons tasteless. Much as I wanted to support the right of the cartoonists to draw and publish them, I don’t want them on my website. Today’s solution, a montage of cartoons on various subjects by the murdered cartoonists hadn’t occurred to me at the time.
Which speaks to aspects of free speech that so many commentators have failed to understand. When I support the right to free speech, I include the right to make statements that I may disagree with. Your right to free speech extends beyond the speech that I or anyone else agrees with or approves of. If I find your words or images tasteless, puerile or downright offensive, it is still your right to speak, write or draw them.
A society can have freedom of speech or it can have freedom from offense. It can’t have both. If freedom from offence was a right, the winner of any disagreement would be the first to claim offence. That may work on Twitter or below-the-line discussions at certain online newspapers, but it’s not a recipe for mature discourse.
Freedom to offend
Most of us prefer that when the right to free speech is exercised, it is used politely and respectfully. Most people have little difficulty in doing that. But that is a matter of good manners, not an obligation. If we get tired of what someone has to say, whether it’s because we’re tired of scatological humour or indeed rude cartoons of prophets, we have every right to take our attention elsewhere. We have no right to deny that person their right to speak.
Several commenters pointed out that the freest societies place limits on free speech. In most countries, it is illegal to threaten someone with violence or to encourage others to commit violence, and we’re likely to find ourselves in court if we libel someone. In spite of what certain commentators who should know better seem to think, that is not an argument for freedom from offence.
Because here’s the great thing about free speech: It extends to a freedom to criticise others’ speech. If we’re offended, we can say so and explain why. The internet has given us all the ability to do what I’m doing now: write what we think and make it available to the world. It doesn’t give us the right to an audience. We have to work on that.
I am now going to exercise that right to criticise to comment on journalists and columnists who have taken the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as an opportunity to criticise their cartoons. Those commenters have every right to do so, but we have to ask why they choose to do so now, and not six months ago when the cartoonists were still alive. None that I’ve seen explicitly argue that the cartoonists should have been gunned down, but to reflect the argument of the gunmen immediately after the shooting is to support the position of the gunmen. Within my own right to free speech are many words to describe such commenters, but I’ll content myself with one:
This is not a clash of civilisations
My favourite commenter over the last week’s has been Fox News’s Steven Emerson, who tells us that Birmingham is an entirely Muslim city and London is patrolled by Muslim cultural police. Trust Fox News to take idiocy so far they manage to extract humour from a tragedy. At least, everyone I’ve spoken to Over Here thinks he’s funny.
While we’re laughing at Emerson, we shouldn’t lose sight of the extremist game he’s playing into, or perhaps playing. Every insurgent organisation in history has a chapter in its playbook about provoking a response. It might be to encourage the state to send the police or army to crack down. It might be to encourage a torch and pitchfork-wielding mob, or its modern equivalent. Either of those works as a recruitment drive for insurgents and extremists. I don’t know whether provoking such a response was a deliberate objective of last week’s attacks in France because I haven’t asked the attackers. What I am sure of is that Al-Qaeda and IS commanders were punching the air when they heard idiots were firebombing mosques.
If we let the extremists, be they Muslim gunmen, right wing firebombers or Fox News commentators, set the agenda, we will see more violence. We will see our societies, French, British, American or any other, fragment into Muslims, Jews, whites and a dozen other demographics who resent sharing a country with each other. We will come to fear each other and with fear will come hate. With hate will come more violence, and so more fear as we fall into a maelstrom of destruction and alienation. It won’t matter that most of us will see what is happening for what it is. We’ll be too worried about how the man opposite us on the bus or the woman we pass on the street might be thinking about us to break free of the maelstrom.
It hasn’t happened yet, so let’s decide right here, right now, that it isn’t going to happen.
Here in London, I have neighbours who are Muslims, neighbours who are Jews and neighbours who are neither. We’re all comfortable with that. Yet for anyone tempted to suggest that Emerson and his ilk have a point when they tell us the Muslims are taking over, let’s state the obvious through a thought experiment. Two years ago, two Muslim extremists murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby on a London street. They did it for no reason other than that he was a soldier. How Muslim the murderers were is questionable given that one was a convert whose grasp of the Koran may have been more than a little shaky, but that’s beside the point. Those two murderers demonstrated that all you need to commit an act of violent extremism is a knife and a target. Any of us could lay our hands on both within an hour.
According to the Pew Research Centre’s 2010 figures, there are 4.7 million Muslims in France, 2.9 million in the UK and 2.6 million in the USA. If there aren’t attacks by Muslim extremists every day, it’s for one simple reason: Muslims don’t want to attack anyone any more than anyone else does. Let’s keep that in mind whenever we hear hyperbolic rhetoric about clashes of civilisations.
Let’s go further than that and agree on a simple response to the gunmen, firebombers and extremist rhetoricians:
You are not going to make us hate each other. We get along. We are not going to fall out because you want us to. We will occasionally disagree with each other, and we will do it politely and amicably.
You, the hate-mongers, have failed. You will continue to fail because we, the reasonable people of the world, are not going to let you tell us what to think.
For as long as we keep thinking that, the extremists have failed.