On the Politics of Free Speech
Following the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France, conversations surrounding free speech have been brought to the forefront of public discourse. Everyone from religious figures like Pope Francis to politicians like British Prime Minister David Cameron have chimed in on the issue, presenting a variety of opinions, showing us that it isn’t as black-and-white as it is made out to be. Academics and writers have also played their role, with hundreds of articles having been published in the past few weeks with regards to the limits and meaning of free speech. Now, while many of these publications have emphasized the preservation of unrestricted free speech as a fundamental facet of all liberal democratic societies, they have focused much less, if at all, on how free speech is invoked in these societies, in which contexts, and the politics that underscore our perception of it.
The recent arrest of controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has made apparent a discrepancy with regards to the allowance of free speech. Dieudonné was arrested for a social media post saying, “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” – a play on the names of Charlie Hebdo and gunman Amedy Coulibaly – on grounds of supporting terrorism. His arrest came only days after a march where over a million people – including numerous world leaders – gathered in France as a display of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and in support of free speech.
Dieudonné is himself no stranger to controversy, having been convicted in the past for promoting anti-Semitism in his comedy, a crime punishable by law in France. Even a former Charlie Hebdo satirist, Maurice Sinet, was fired for creating an anti-Semitic cartoon in 2008. Now such reprimands are understandable if seen in the backdrop of France’s dark history of violent anti-Semitism, a history that the country would be remiss to forget. Even Voltaire, who is often evoked as an exemplar of free expression, had himself been a sometimes brazen anti-Semite. Therefore, France’s laws protecting a community that has been subject to the brunt of state-sponsored oppression and that has been pushed to the margins of French society serve a sensible, protective purpose[AH1] . This begs the question however, as to why there exists a double standard when it comes to offending Muslim sensibilities.
At a time where anti-Islam sentiments are sweeping across Europe, where Muslim citizens are held collectively responsible for the crimes of a few, where they are routinely scapegoated and vilified, it becomes clear that Charlie Hebdo’s offensive depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were adding insult to a preexistent injury. This, of course, isn’t to say that the attacks were at all justified. On the contrary, the attacks should be condemned to the utmost degree and no person should be killed for a mere expression of speech, however offensive it may be. However, it is important to recognize the greater political context in which these cartoons were made.
Acknowledging the politics that underscore our perception of free speech is vital, because this acknowledgment will serve as a lens through which we recognize the greater structure of the power dynamics at play. Dieudonné’s humor is blatantly offensive, inflammatory, provocative and more, but how is it any different from the line of humor portrayed by Charlie Hebdo? Why silence the humor of one but glorify the humor of the other? And what does it say about us when we invoke free speech as an unrestricted right – almost as a convenient tool – only when we use it to abuse oppressed groups? Where in history have we seen this happen before?
Indeed, the level of free speech allowed by a society has necessarily become the litmus test by which that society’s commitments to liberal ideals are affirmed. However, in the case of France, the way the Republic deals with its minority communities will be the true test of its commitment to these ideals. And as the rest of the free world watches, let us use this as an opportunity to assess ourselves. As we strive to adhere to our principles, it is important for us to address our own inconsistencies, because if there’s anything that’s clear about free speech, it’s that it isn’t clear at all.
- Asad Dandia