As the dust of the terror attack at Charlie Hebdo begins to settle, the war on ideals and values seems only to have just started. The incident has reignited the age old debate on freedom of speech and its confines, if any.
Debates are an ideal platform for reflection and progress. People are coming to terms with the fact that “Freedom of speech” in the manner it is perceived does not exist. Although the term is not a complete misnomer but it is bundled with some heavy caveats. Embedded within the romantic notion is our liberty to express our mind in the public sphere with no strings attached. To be able to broadcast whatever whims and desires our thoughts carry. To be able to challenge the most sacred edifices.
In reality, does freedom of expression provide us with that license? The answer is, no. Why? Because we want to remain a civilized society.
The further the territory by freedom of speech is encroached the more ground is ceded by civility. This however does not imply giving up right to offend, but rather to realize the position of the offended. There is a huge difference between criticizing a powerful institution and maligning a weak minority. Furthermore, one has to be cautious that the idea rather than a person is being criticized. Satire has been part and parcel of European culture even before Milton’s Paradise lost was published. However, it is not satire that is in question here; it is the privilege of outright ridiculing and mocking.
It should be understood that Freedom of speech is a weapon, and it cannot be used indiscriminately. This liberty does not entail license of verbal vagrancy. In fact, if left unchecked, this would act as an anarchical fifth column.
This week, while listening to a debate on the radio, I heard a woman in an editorial position, drumming the importance of the right to offend. The example she gave was that of parliamentary debate, which she said is only robust in the UK because of this very right.
She failed to mention though, that at all times, “The Speaker” in the parliament is there to regulate any verbal outburst that falls out of line. The words “order, order, order” filling the air with the mallet striking down each time, is a very familiar sight in the chambers.
So, are there any taker who would like to barter savagery and insult for civility and respect? Likewise, do we want social order to be traded with frenzied mob mentality and vigilante justice? We have to make a choice. It is not being proposed that one horrendous act justifies another. What is being highlighted is that nothing will be gauged and no progress will be made if one looks at the intentions of Charlie Hebdo’s staff and the intentions of the terrorist in isolation. It should be understood that the libertarian utopia ( that is in fact not a societal neutral position) by its very nature cannot exist as it tears the fabric of the multicultural society, which requires tolerance and respect.
So the question is, putting aside the heinous murder of Charlie Hebdo’s staff, why has there been a massive support for the right to insult in recent times? This has been explored below.
“To empathize is to civilize, to civilize is to empathize” says Jeremy Rifkin. We as a global human community are losing this capacity of empathy each passing day. TV with rude and disparaging content has made inroads in our popular culture and primetime entertainment. Reality TV shows give people the opportunity to keep voting in, their laughing-stock-contestant, only to witness him/her being destroyed by the judges the following week.
Empathic capacity in societies is an undulating phenomenon. There was an upshot in global empathy after the two world wars. This gave rise to the peace and environmental movement of the last century. Post cold war however, there has been a steady decline and that might lead us to another anthropogenic calamity.
“Throughout civilization there have been moments of mass empathic flowering and empathic collapse” opines Philosopher and author Roman Krznaric. It is now more than ever that we need to foster empathic capacity. It is the dearth of this value that is blinding us to see that cloaked within freedom of speech is our desire to obtain a license for public disparagement, only to satisfy our new taste in entertainment.
From a moral perspective, to question is any one’s right and places the person posing the question on a moral neutral plane. To answer a harsh question/severe criticism, in an appropriate manner, leaves the responder on a higher moral plane. To mock, however is an entirely different story. When one mocks, the perch for moral high is lost. And even if championing the right cause, mocking is not the way for any serious discourse as one might win the argument but lose the person.
Mocking others throws us to the lowest ebb of human capacity and dignity. As pointed out by Hamza Yousuf, “Severe criticism on Islam has been witnessed throughout centuries. Books after books are available that have answered those criticisms, refuted and debunked the false claims”. There have been scholarly debates where most convoluted ideas about Islam have been settled. However, when a personality is ridiculed or an idea is mocked, it shows that the answer to that criticism is not sought after.
It is our collective lack of societal empathy that is making us a mockery of our ownselves. This trend has to be reversed.
On a different note, the latest exodus of French-Jews in wake of Paris incident also made the news. 5000 Jews left France for Israel last year. It is estimated that a further 10,000 will leave for the holy land this year. At least this fact should now shatter the myth propagated by the media houses of Israel being constantly bombarded by Hamas rockets and the country being made extremely unsafe by a Palestinian onslaught. The thousands of people migrating from the safe haven of Europe to Israel for enhanced safety have indeed given their verdict.