I grew up going between different cultures. This upbringing taught me that everything in life is relative, including the fact that I believe this statement to be true. The only thing in this world that is objective is science…. and even that is debated. The universe is too big, and mother nature (or God, Allah, Io, Buddha, Yahweh) too powerful for any of us to comprehend, so I don’t make assumptions about most things in this world, nor do I take a lot of things for granted.
I accept that the world doesn’t always work according to the way we humans would like, no matter what our belief systems and ideologies, which in themselves are relative. Which is why I don’t believe any of us can be so quick to assume that ‘our’ way of thinking is more legitimate than another’s. This includes the idea of ‘freedom of expression’.
Today I had a conversation with an English woman, a French woman and a Spaniard, and all of us had differing views on the issue. This discussion only served to reinforce my view that everything is relative. In this globalised world where physical borders are almost meaningless, no one person can take their point of view for granted anymore. In the end, no idea is more legitimate than another.
Of course I believe that we all have a right to express our thoughts and opinions on issues. I make use of this right all of the time and understand that this is how we evolve. But while I believe that we ought to be able to talk to one another about everything from the purely mundane to the sacred and vulgar, I don’t believe that we have an absolute right to say it however we want, without any regard to how it will be received. We should think about our audience and the message we want to send. We need to be careful of the content and manner in which we choose to communicate our ideas, otherwise our message can get lost or our audience become alienated. I also think it’s naive to think we can say whatever we want without expecting consequences, especially people in positions of authority, or whom wield power or influence over others. How we want the world to work, and how the world actually works are two very different things.
Which is why I find it puzzling that with this whole debate around freedom of expression, beyond this argument of ideas, we forget that we are dealing with humans. With all the screwed up, irrational, unjust and inhumane things we humans have done to one another in the past (and we continue to do today and will probably continue to do in the future), I don’t understand why people pretend that we have somehow evolved into superior beings. It’s still the same world that played host to WWII not even a century ago. And just like any other day around the world, wars are being fought and people are still dying over ideas (sometimes in our name).
Contrary to the rhyme that starts with ‘sticks and stones will break my bones’, words – and pictures – actually do hurt people. It might be nice to imagine that we’re all invincible and should be able to handle the jandle, but we’re not. Even though I like to think I’m one of the most open-minded and tolerant people in this world, I have my sore spots. And I recognise that others will have their sore spots too. It doesn’t mean that those sore spots or controversial subjects should be avoided. Absolutely not. But this is where I believe we should be able to look beyond our own needs when dealing with others. There are times when we should act with compassion and recognise that sometimes there are more important things than having to express our own ideas. Or as my mum used to put it ‘you have to pick and choose your battles’.
Simply put, Charlie Hebdo chose their battle.
You see, there’s this thing called the Social Contract where we all agree to give up a few liberties in order to live in peace (like the right to go around killing one another arbitrarily). This is exactly why I believe that freedom of expression is not an absoloute right. For the sake of keeping the peace and maintaining relationships, sometimes (I truly mean sometimes, rather than all the time) we need to be prudent in the way we conduct our affairs. If a topical issue does need to be raised, then we need to be tactful about how we deal with it. Or not, in which case you’re choosing your battle. On doing so, you leave the protection that the Social Contract once afforded you and you enter into the state of nature, which Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish and short”.
The absolute freedom of expression follows the argument that in order for society to progress and move forward, we need to debate ideas. But a debate needs at least two parties, if not more. In effect, we can only have discussions when other people are willing to engage with us. If we insist on alienating people by the right to offend them, we don’t just create a climate of insecurity but we put a hold on resolving conflict and progressing further. Which is why I don’t understand this insistance on the absolute freedom of expression. It’s self defeating. Taken from this perspective, its less about the greater good than it is about indivdiual liberties.
Thats how I see the designs of Charlie Hebdo. They were actually trying to have a conversation. Apparently they were reaching out in solidarity to the Muslim community. The point was not to mock Islam itself, but to mock a film which was in turn, mocking Islam. But how on earth do you expect to create solidarity with a people when you choose to mock the thing they hold most sacred? The answer is that you don’t. You actually shut down the opportunity for a constructive dialogue. Whats more, instead of creating a greater good, they have (in part) contributed to a more hostile environment for the people they were supposedly trying to unite with.
Finally, instead of recognising that we humans may be feeble, the defenders of this absolute right to freedom of expression seem to think that we’re in some parallel universe where everyone is capable of sitting down and having intellectual discussions about the meaning of life. But as much as I wish the world were like that, we don’t live in some parallel universe. And far from everyone having the tools to debate ideas maturely and respectfully, we humans have been known to resort to violence to prove our point or force our views (even Pope Francis said he’d “punch” someone if they pulled out some sorta ‘yo mama’!). Do we turn out in our millions to oppose this daily violence? Probably not. Coz its not ‘us’ experiencing the violence. We went through the Age of Enlightenment. We exported our violence to the colonies.
As adults we should be able to show some restraint when engaging with others. I’d also like to think that a bit of humility, compassion and respect might do us a world of good. At least it might if we try. Then again, it’s all relative. I know we don’t live in a bisousnours/carebare world, so I guess I can only speak for myself when I say I’d rather give diplomacy a go before falling on my sword*.
*To be absolutely clear, I am a pacifist and do not advocate violence. I just recognise that the rest of the world don’t see things the same way.