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Willard Ng

Singapore

Charlie Hebdo and the freedom of expression

March 20, 2016

    While the freedom of expression is generally agreed upon as an important right accorded to all such that one can freely express his/her sentiments and beliefs, a line needs to be drawn. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine might have crossed a line too many in expressing their beliefs and thoughts. Without a doubt, there is no paradigm in which the Islamic jihadists can ever be excused for their heinous crimes and brutal execution of the Charlie Hebdo personnel as well as civilians in cold blood. Therefore, the more pertinent issue that should be discussed is whether Charlie Hebdo was at fault at all in the first place, and if it is legitimate for them to publicise offensive materials. 

    I truly believe that there should always be a caveat to freedom of expression. That is, freedom of expression should be granted to those who have constructive opinions, instead of those who simply want to stir trouble and cause society to be wrought in disputes. That is why despite the freedom of expression in many countries, defamation laws still exist, which inhibits one’s ability from abusing his freedom of expression to harm and slander another’s reputation and credibility.

    Drawing this back to the Charlie Hebdo incident, the cartoons drawn that were portraying Prophet Mohammad did seem to have certain truths in them and were not simply blatant lies. While the caricatures of Prophet Mohammad were crude, these images revolved around contentious issues involving the Muslims such as polygamy, Sharia Law etc, which struck a chord with many in the Western World. With the intention of presenting their opinions about such issues, generating awareness in a light-hearted manner (so as to be better understood by the masses) and possibly effecting change, there is always a propensity for the drawings to be more sensationalist and controversial, in order to maximise the impact and draw more readers. It can thus be argued that despite being extremely offensive, Charlie Hebdo had genuine, constructive opinions and sentiments about the published materials, and were not publishing them merely to incite unhappiness. 

    This begets an important question: Should the right to offend exist?

    Simply put, yes.

    We first have to understand that classifying something to be offensive is extremely arbitrary and is subjective to individuals. While it may seem blatantly obvious that depicting Prophet Mohammad (who is worshipped fervently by Muslims all over the world) in an unclothed state, is extremely offensive, there are a plethora of things that might offend others as well.

    For instance, I might find that limiting one’s freedom of speech by imposing heavy punishments to be greatly offensive. I might even find someone who dons a Liverpool jersey particularly offensive. Things like these that are close to my heart and I feel strongly towards make me angry and annoyed. But the fact that I find them offensive or anger-inducing cannot, and should never, be used as an excuse for shutting down others' expression, especially when these views are only applicable to me.

    Do we then uniformly ban and frown upon such acts simply because someone (in this instance myself) personally finds them offensive?

    Evidently not, because that is exactly how millions of people are silenced the world over, how repressive regimes thrive – through law, or through violence, or both.

    Additionally, the human race has historically always progressed and sought greater achievements through causing offence. In fact, almost every single revolutionary or new idea has always involved offending previous schools of thought. Just imagine what non-segregated buses, schools or cafeterias would have sounded like to people who lived in the past. Or how people in the past would have reacted to celebrities or politicians who are willing to come out to the public as homosexuals. These improvements (ameliorating racism, the acceptance of homosexuals etc) that we generally associate with a maturing society were once audacious challenges to the norm that were deemed to be offensive and unacceptable.

    In essence, by curbing the right to offend, we arbitrarily prevent people from commenting on issues out of fear as these comments have the propensity to offend certain individuals. At the same time, we also hinder society’s growth to become one that is more mature and accepting. 

    Ultimately, while Charlie Hebdo expressed their strong emotions towards Muslim issues in a vulgar manner, the underlying intention was to generate greater awareness towards such topics and to effect change among the masses. At no point did Charlie Hebdo ever mislead their readers about the Muslim issues nor did they perpetuate lies. This only adds to the idea that Charlie Hebdo had constructive opinions about the things that were occurring around them. More importantly, even if Charlie Hebdo had the intention to offend, it has already been established above that being offensive is arbitrary and although seemingly counter-intuitive, brings about greater benefits to our society.

    As former President of the United States, George Washington, aptly puts it, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

    Would we rather choose to live our lives life 'dumb and silent' or allow the freedom for our society to grow and mature?

    I choose the latter. Its your call, society. 

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