On January 7, 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen walked into the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and started shooting. According to witnesses, the gunmen shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and “the prophet has been avenged!” during the attack, which left twelve people dead. In the wake of the tragedy, debates erupted online about whether or not Charlie Hebdo should be considered free speech champions. Many consider their cartoons to be both racist and offensive, and that Charlie Hebdo should not be put on a pedestal. Even Pope Francis said free speech does not mean you can insult someone’s faith. Stephen Fry, on the other hand, wrote that even though Charlie Hebdo “bordered on racist and repulsive,” no one deserves to be censored or even killed for offending people. Indeed, if last year’s attack teaches us anything, it’s that offending people is no excuse for murder, and that the best response to “offensive” speech is to employ our right to free speech to start dialogues.
I put the word “offensive” in quotation marks because what may offend one person might not offend another. We all have limited peripheral vision shaped not only by what we’ve experienced, but also by what we haven’t. Because of this, a statement intended to be provocative can be misinterpreted as hateful. For example, I recently shared a meme on my Facebook wall that said, “Homosexuals: unnatural abominations. Talking snakes: legit as fuck.” A friend left a comment that said, “I’m a gay Christian scientist, and you basically just said I’m stupid.” I tried to explain that I was just mocking the hypocritical anti-LGBT arguments Christians make, but he didn’t see it my way. In the end, I decided to leave the issue alone.
The discourse surrounding Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are similar. In a guest post last year for the blog NonProphet Status, Aaron Underwood wrote that although he supports Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, he could not say “Je suis Charlie” because, according to him, to do so would be to support the magazine’s “racist” cartoons. One cartoon in particular Underwood took issue with was the cover of an October 2014 edition that depicted several pregnant Nigerian woman saying, “Don’t touch our welfare!” Although Max Fisher of Vox explained that the image was actually a parody of the French right’s view of Boko Haram’s sex slaves, Underwood remarked, “it’s hard to see how that excuses pregnant Boko Haram’s sex slaves being portrayed as thick-lipped, toothless, and angry about wanting welfare.”
That’s not to say being offended is illogical. There are things that legitimately offend me. As a transgender person, I’m offended by Matt Walsh calling a fourteen-year-old transgender girl named Corey Maison a “gender-confused boy” who is “being poisoned on camera” after receiving hormones in a viral video. I’m offended by Douglas Murray making fun of nonbinary transgender journalist Jack Monroe on Sam Harris’s podcast. I’m even offended by Caitlyn Jenner saying, “If you look like a man in a dress, you’re going to make people uncomfortable.” But does that mean they should have their legal right to free speech taken away? Does being offended by their stupidity give me the right to physically hurt them? No! Instead, I use my free speech rights to call them out and explain why they are wrong. That’s how it works.
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, their cartoons may be legitimately offensive to some, but the only way to address it is through civil dialogue. For example, I was just talking to one of my Facebook friends about Charlie Hebdo’s recent controversial cartoon depicting dead Syrian child Aylan grown up as an “ass groper in Germany.” On the surface, it suggests that the recent rape epidemic in Cologne, Germany, is because of Syrian refugees. However, since Charlie Hebdo often uses controversial images to satirize racist right-wing politics, it’s possible the cartoon is satirizing the right-wing anti-immigration group Pegida. I suggested this to my friend, but she said she felt Charlie Hebdo doesn’t do a good job making it clear it is satire, thus failing at satire. Whether or not she’s right is up to debate, but thanks to a commitment to the right of free speech, we’re able to have this conversation, learn from each other, and possibly change our minds.
As humanists we must do everything we can to protect free speech in order to promote the free exchange of ideas. While the legal right to free speech does not automatically make statements morally or factually right, the only proper response to offensive statements is to start dialogues and spread information. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of dogmatism, which, as we saw with the Charlie Hebdo attack, can be deadly.