Joyce McMillan: Don’t let outrage kill free speech

Demonstrations, such as this one in London's Trafalgar Square, followed news of the attack. Picture: AP
Demonstrations, such as this one in London's Trafalgar Square, followed news of the attack. Picture: AP
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ATTACK on Charlie Hebdo office in Paris should serve as warning of the threats to open debate, writes Joyce McMillan.

After the horror and sadness, the first response is one of admiration. Faced with a threat to their republican values – liberty, equality, fraternity – the people of France take to the streets in huge numbers, holding up pens in honour of the murdered journalists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, who included some of the nation’s best-known cartoonists.

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“Je suis Charlie,” they cry, in an ancient gesture of solidarity; although in truth, few of us anywhere would be either as insouciant as the Charlie journalists were in insulting all and sundry, often in outrageously stereotyped terms, or as brave as they were in continuing to do so after specific death threats, and an actual firebomb attack on their office.

So in Paris, in Lyons, in Marseilles, the people gathered to defy fear, and declare their commitment to freedom of expression, in all its rowdy forms; and as the day wore on, and the terrible news spread across the social networks – inspiring an avalanche of creative responses from artists and cartoonists everywhere – the demonstrations spread to other cities across the world, to London, New York, and beyond.

Yet as one sage commentator pointed out, on Thursday evening, the idea of absolute freedom of expression is a relatively recent one in human history, still not accepted in large parts of the world, and often contested even in the countries where it is most strongly upheld; and as the aftermath of the Paris attack begins to unfold, we should perhaps take this dreadful event as an occasion to examine exactly where we stand on the principle of free speech, in 2015, and what we can do to strengthen our commitment to it.

It’s perhaps time, for example, for us in the UK to reassess our legislation against hate-speech, and against incitement to violence. Certainly if free speech has limits, then in principle these seem like the right ones, since no civic freedoms can flourish in a society riven by violence.

In practice, though, “incitement to violence” can be hard to define, in a situation where small extremist groups interpret every form of criticism or mockery as reasonable grounds for murderous physical attack.

Incitement, it seems, is partly in the eye of the beholder; and perhaps the best tribute we could pay, to those who died at Charlie Hebdo on Thursday, is to take a long, hard look at our current legislation, with a view to checking that we are not now conceding too much to those of all faiths, and many other beliefs, who increasingly insist on their imagined right not to be “offended”.

Offence and insult are vital parts of public debate, after all, generally celebrated when they are applied to political ideas and leaders; who would want to live in a world where Steve Bell could not portray David Cameron with a condom over his head, or where Tony Blair could not be caricatured as George W Bush’s poodle?

And as ideas in the public realm, religious beliefs and leaders must surely be open to exactly the same robust criticism and insult – in some cases richly deserved. The difficulty arises, of course, where criticism of religious ideas becomes entangled with pervasive prejudice against minority groups which are closely associated with a particular faith; but whereas racial prejudice in a free society is intolerable, the right to criticise religious ideas is indispensable, and the law must strive not to confuse the two.

Beyond that, I think we need to examine our current position on free speech in two further ways. Here in Scotland, we need to take seriously both our history as one of the centres of the Enlightenment, and our current status as home to some of Europe’s greatest cultural festivals, with a capital globally recognised as a world City of Literature. We need to look hard at the creeping authoritarianism of some of our recent legislation on sectarian songs and chants, for example; and reject the growing impulse to over-react to the online equivalent of dim-witted pub chat, or to call the police when celebrity scarecrows like Katie Hopkins try to drum up some social media interest by insulting the Scottish nation.

In the UK as a whole, likewise, we need to recall that there are no grounds for complacency on freedom of expression, in a country where the government reserves the right to examine all our private communications at will, and reacted to the Edward Snowden security leaks of 2013 in such a profoundly authoritarian style that the offices of the Guardian newspaper were raided by security forces, and many of their computers smashed and destroyed.

And finally, across the West, we perhaps need to reflect on the fact that the three great French republican virtues, on which so many of our western liberties are based, are closely interdependent, and cannot survive in isolation.

If liberty dies, it becomes impossible to pursue a real equality of dignity and opportunity, because protest against the abuse of power is silenced.

If equality is no longer respected and sought, then the anger of the oppressed gradually turns to violence, and the freedoms we cherish become the first casualties of civil conflict.

And if we do not live and legislate in a spirit of fraternity – treating one another as brothers and sisters, and expecting the best from our fellow-citizens rather than the worst – then human progress shudders to a halt, and with it all hope of liberty and equality. In that sense, none of the great republican principles is absolute, since the good society must strive to balance and honour them all. Each of them, though, is vital, and only to be abridged, even slightly, after exhaustive – and always renewable – public debate.

So let’s stand shoulder to shoulder with France in renewing our commitment to those values, this week. And let’s remember, too, that it’s only through the most rigorous and generous civic debate, involving people of all faiths and none, that we can begin to strike the balance between those values that is right for our society, in our time; and that offers each of us the dignity and freedom we need, if we are to live lives rich in creativity and hope, and not blighted by the false gods of hatred and violence.

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