As a writer, I am committed to free expression. I don’t find it easy. I worry about being ignorant and rude. I do not believe anything goes – as far as I am concerned.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
However, I admire robust satire. I rejoice that we have The News Quiz and Ian Hislop. I want comedians to take a swipe at those who ought to serve us. It’s an effective way of speaking truth to power. See how many dictators have tried to suppress any form of ridicule.
Matters change when the balance is different. Abuse of those with less status than the majority is wrong. For example, promoting racist, homophobic, or gender hatred is unacceptable. Any incitement to violence against people regarded as ‘other’ is not a matter of free speech. It is evil.
Freedom of expression means we can take these vile opinions to task. We can call out the prejudices of UKIP, Britain First and The National Front.
I have not read any Charlie Hebdo articles – but two cartoons stand out.
Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists: “It’s hard being loved by idiots”
I find it hard to argue with that point of view.
I could do without the dribble – but Love is Stronger than Hate is a message of hope.
So now comes the tricky bit. I am conscious I may seem to be hijacking the appalling news from France. I do not wish to be in the same Venn diagram as Nigel Farage or Donald Trump. But I have to say something about this from Salman Rushdie on the PEN website:
“Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.” my emphasis
That little phrase, hidden in a dependent clause, is poisonous. Not because I am a person of faith, and I feel offended. No. I agree with him here:
“Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
But that jibe is the same as using expressions like ‘sky-fairies’ . These are nothing to do with honest debate about ideas but act as signifiers. It tells the like-minded ‘I am enlightened and any other view but ours is ridiculous.’ It excludes, makes religious people ‘others’, untermensch.
I hope that was not his intent. I am a person of faith – a ragbag of concepts and beliefs and errors like many others. Debates with open-hearted atheists, agnostics and anyone else can be deeply worthwhile. I know absolute fundamentalists – of any belief system – cannot be reasoned with. Nonetheless I maintain this :
freedom of expression should not promote disdain – but discussion.