“Je Suis Charlie” – we have the right to FEEL offended but we don’t have the right not to BE offended1
February 1, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
I’ve been thinking, and reading, since January 7th, about free speech. Should it really be unlimited? What does ‘offensive’ mean? Questions like that. Events since that day in Paris have led me to wonder even further what my often stated commitment to free speech says about me. It is only today, more than three weeks later, that I think I have an answer. Firstly, it is possible to have the right to feel offended without having the right not to be offended. Secondly, if we are offended, we don’t have the right to murder people.
The second statement seems pretty intuitive, but it is important as it is related to the first. There have been many people, political commentators and religious leaders alike, who have seeked to explain the actions of those who carried out the killings in Paris by justifying the offence that they had taken against the cartoons that had been published by Charlie Hebdo. The Pope, in what will sadly overshadow a lot of the very good work he has been doing on the condition of the poor over his time in office, even decided to announce that it was OK to punch someone who insulted your mother. Some Muslims, and some left-leaning commentators, have been carefully explaining why the publication of pictures of the Prophet Muhammad upset so many people, without (important to say) justifying the actions of the Kouachi brothers and Ahmady Coulibaly.
The point, I think, that they are making is that we do actually have a right to feel offended, and we do have a right to let people know that we are offended. They also hint at darker motivations behind people publishing pictures of the Prophet when they know how much it upsets some people. I’ve read enough of this, and the arguments against it, to feel that I agree that people do, in fact, have the right to FEEL offended. But that is not the same as having the right not to BE offended. It is the right not to be offended which is shutting down free speech in this country more than anything else. It is what led students at Oxford University to refuse to let an abortion debate be held there. It is what led students at the University of East Anglia to block a political debate featuring a UKIP candidate. Rather than debate opinions and actions we disagree with, let’s not ‘give them a platform’. Let’s shut them up. The Paris terrorists decided that rather than debate with those who produce Charlie Hebdo about how, just because they are poking fun at all religious debates, Islamists would rather they stop using pictures of Muhammad to do so, they shot them dead.
You will notice that I am talking mainly about the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. There were other people killed the next day, at a Jewish supermarket in Le Marais. The selection of that location by Ahmady Coulibaly was nothing to do with offence at cartoons. The people who died in that supermarket didn’t die because they drew offensive cartoons. They died because of being Jewish. This is why I have come round to understanding the arrest of the French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. At first, I was ready to tweet and comment that the price of free speech is letting people like Dieudonne comment on facebook that “Je Suis Charlie Coulibaly”. His argument, at first glance, is simply that he identified with the cause that people argue the terrorists were notionally fighting for. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that, even if we feel offended by it. But then I thought about the surname he chose to use. If he was supporting the cause of the terrorists who were upset about the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, then he should have written “Je Suis Charlie Kouachi”. But he didn’t. He identified with the cause of the man who went into a Jewish supermarket, took men, women and children hostage, and killed four of them, with a plan to kill more had he been allowed the time. That isn’t supporting a cause, or feeling offended, that is supporting the murder of people because of who they are. Which is where free speech ends for me. It ends where there can be no debate about the intentions of the person who wrote it, where they are glorifying violence against people simply because of who they are.
It is far more difficult to argue that people who draw pictures of the Prophet Muhammad are doing the same. There is, of course, a difference between picture of the Prophet as a terrorist or a rapist and pictures of him with his arms around Jesus in an embrace (as in the “Jesus and Mo” furore last year). I won’t reprint them on this blog because I have no cause or reason to offend the many reasonable people I know who say that they are offended by the pictures. I think that they have a right to be offended, and free speech includes the responsibility sometimes to think about whether it is worth provoking upset amongst people if you don’t really need to in order to make a point. I would feel the same about depictions of Jews and money (which are published most days, by the way, in the Arab media). I would be offended, and I would rather they are not used. But I wouldn’t kill people because they did it.
Which leads me back to what “Je Suis Charlie” should really mean. It means that free speech is sacred in a liberal democracy. It doesn’t mean I can say anything I want to who I want about whatever I want without understanding that I might offend someone. It means that I have the right to FEEL offended without having the right not to BE offended. But underneath all that. “Je Suis Charlie” means that in a raucous, liberal society, should we be offended, we don’t have the right to murder people for doing so.