Hebdo:Free speech is not a damsel in distress

About the Charlie Hebdo massacre, what is to be said beyond the widespread righteous indignation over what seems to most in the West a shockingly—and tragically– out-of-proportion reaction to mere cartoons?

One thing seems clear, Charlie Hebdo exposes the limits and naivete of the old saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As the Paris tragedy shows, it is naïve to draw a distinction between real weapons and mere words. Sometimes, words—or a mocking portrayal of Prophet Muhammad– can hurt more than sticks and stones and will be reacted to accordingly.

(And if we say, Come on,, words don’t actually wound, who gets to decide whether they do or not? Probably those wounded.)

”Use your words” is the standard parental advice to their kids in the settling of playground disputes. Civilized people do not resort to physical violence. But when the words are mocking cherished beliefs of other people, they may have the opposite of a tranquilizing effect.

Presumably it would have been more sportsmanlike for Muslims wounded by insults to respond with cartoons of their own, perhaps mocking the Christian god. But in choosing between words or sticks and stones, it’s naive to think that we get to dictate the choice of weapons.

One limit to free speech even in a society that cherishes free speech is the exception of yelling “fire”in a crowded theater. It seems clear that mocking Islam or its prophet is in fact—to them– the equivalent of yelling fire.

After a touchdown in the NFL the little dance of celebration by the one who scored is free speech; but taunting, a variety of that celebrating, is penalized, as inciting to violence.

Edward Snowden’s free speech in leaking secrets has been determined by the U.S. to be the equivalent of yelling “fire.” Wikileaks are just words, but are deemed by those who are supposed to know such things to have the effect of sticks and stones which can hurt our nation. Free speech in this case is treason.

It was a terrible ordeal for author Salman Rushdie when he fearfully hid out all those years of the fatwa against him for having exercised his free speech in a novel in a way Muslims saw as insulting and harmful to their religion. But it was perhaps naive of him to think the Muslims he had hurt would turn the other cheek. (Wrong religion, for one thing.)

It seems worth asking: What’s the difference between the Muslim fatwa on Rushdie and ours on Snowden, forced into hiding for his treasonous free speech?

“The pen is mightier than the sword” according to another relevant old saw, and indeed why would we bother writing if there were not the chance of a sword’s effectiveness? But don’t be surprised if such effective speech is reacted to with a sword.

Can’t have it both ways. If words can have the real world efficacy of real weapons, writer’s can’t claim innocence and harmlessness.

In the war between , say, French secular culture, with which we of the “West”—even the majority of religious among us– identify, and Islam, or at least some versions of it, both words and swords are weapons, one not more innocent than the other.

As one on the side of secularity in this battle, I honor the journalists on the front line making points that I agree need to be made, fighting a worthy fight. But free speech is a warrior, not a damsel in distress, and shouldn’t think of itself that way.

Don’t expect those whom you intend to hurt and defeat by your free speech to play by your rules. Don’t expect to be able to dictate the choice of weapons.


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From all the emphasis on the Charlie Hebdo massacre as an attack on free speech, what’s getting lost is the reality of this as a battle in the contemporary war of secular culture vs. religion. From my admittedly incomplete perusal of online news sources, the magazine has it in for Christianity as well as Islam. […]


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