Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech

Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Speech


The Charlie Hebdo attacks have opened a rift in the media about the concept of free speech versus not offending people. New York Times author David Brooks has been one voice in this argument as he took up a call that many people have made. His article “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” has been a rallying point for many people seeking a middle ground between all out free speech and a censored free speech in which giving offense is more regulated. It is a difficult argument to make and understand, especially because it involves the now politically charged matter of religion and terrorism. In this respect, the lesson of Charlie Hebdo‘s exercise of freedom of speech is not centered around religious extremism, but around defining what should and should not be said.

David Brooks’ argument is a difficult one to follow because it seems so contradictory. The victims of the attack are free speech “martyrs,” but they also would not be allowed to work as college newspaper writers. They are at once brave, but also second rate, deserving only a spot at the “kids table.” Literally, Brooks argues that he is not Charlie Hebdo because he is a serious writer and satirists are not. Because most other people posting and chanting “Je Suis Charlie” are being inaccurate because they are not satirists themselves. It is a point, if just a tad too literal for a nuanced debate about free speech.

What Brooks really seems to be discussing in his article is the nature of satire, not the nature of free speech in general terms or even Charlie Hebdo’s use of it. He rates satire below “serious journalism” and commentary, the type that he regularly writes himself. Poking fun at authority, which is part of satire’s raison d’etre is a “puerile” activity at best and only deserves “semirespect” from consumers. While he points out the numerous uses of satire in society, he still maintains that it is a second-best journalistic calling.

That would be news to quite a few literary greats, including the Frenchmen Voltaire and Moliere. Their satirical pieces are considered so important that they are studied by college and high school students all around the world. They made their impact on society through their satire, through poking fun at authority and offending literally thousands with their words. Voltaire, one of the truly great French writers of all time, offended authority on numerous occasions which led either to exile or imprisonment during his long career. There is absolutely no argument about satire or free speech that could regulate this literary lion to the kids table.

Brooks, however, is not really discussing satire or Charlie Hebdo. Basically, he is rating the importance of certain kinds of free speech and arguing that they should be regulated. Arguing that Charlie Hebdo should be less offensive in its satire is essentially to argue that it should be censored. It is true that some free speech is censored, such as libel, hate speech and discriminatory speech. It is against the law, for instance, to mock a religion or culture merely to cause offense. But there is a difference between being offensive just to be offensive and free speech that is offensive because people disagree with the view it puts forward. Satire and the Parisian satirical newspaper lie in that gap, which is part of the reason why it is being discussed now.

Some of the reason why Charlie Hebdo should not be censored has to do with the context in which it is being published. As Brooks points out in the first part of his article, the kind of satire that the paper trades in would not last very long on a college campus. But frankly, the analogy really does not work well. Writing for a college newspaper involves an entirely different audience than a national or international publication does. Not only are the writers for such a publication by definition in the process of learning their craft, but the people reading it are usually a small group that pay money to be there and which the college administration have an interest in not offending too much. Publications that are not funded and targeted at that kind of a closed group have different aims in their writing. Comparing the two is to create a faulty analogy that sounds good but does not stand up to scrutiny.

At the end of his article, Brooks does say that speech codes should be ended so that a greater level of free speech can be had, but the rest of his article contradicts that. He is still advocating a hierarchical vision of speech that does not work in a society based on freedom of all speech. As Salon writer Aaron Barlow notes, Brooks’ article is patronizing at best and self-aggrandizing at its most ridiculous. Someone trying to write a satire about David Brooks (say someone at Charlie Hebdo) might be inclined to give up because he has done such a good job of satirizing himself.

So what conclusion can be drawn from Brooks, Charlie Hebdo and the nature of satire itself? It is a difficult thing to muddle out, not least because people like Brooks are muddying the waters with their half-baked arguments. Perhaps the real point of the argument is to have the discussion at all. Everyone agrees that no one should be murdered for exercising their free speech. Censorship and violent responses to the written or spoken word are anathema to pluralist society. But people seem to disagree a little more about whether some kinds of speech should be censored in order to avoid offending people. That, at least, is an important part in preserving free speech – to have people exercising it at all.

Opinion By Lydia Bradbury


New York Times
Sydney Morning Herald
hoto by Valentina CalaFlickr License