Est. May 2008

19 January, 2015

On Charlie Hebdo, The Pope, And Freedom Of Speech

Ever since the 12 Charlie Hebdo staffers were gunned down because cartoons the paper published upset some of the more excitable members of the religion-which-needs-no-introduction, the idea of freedom of speech has been batted back and forth like a badminton shuttlecock between the extremes of legally curtailing aspects of freedom of speech to having a license to say whatever we wish, whenever we wish, to whomever we wish, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Neither is acceptable; a middle ground can be achieved, and ought to be sought.  Doing so will require the resurrection of two things which, sadly, are on the edge of extinction these days.

Common courtesy and common sense.

When I read Pope Francis’ comments on the slaughter, I resisted as best I could the knee-jerk reaction many others seemed to have had – that the Pope was calling for censorship laws – and re-read his statements.  If I’ve learned anything regarding this particular Pope, it’s that more often than not what looks like a simple statement on the surface is actually a bit deeper than most journalists care to go.

When Pope Francis said:
"If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," Francis said half-jokingly, throwing a mock punch his way. "It's normal.”
... he was right.  It’s ‘normal’ for human beings to want to respond in some way to those who do us harm of any kind; in fact, as the Pope later said, ‘a reaction of some sort [is] to be expected’.   It’s also ‘normal’ for that reaction to be greater than the offense itself – the rule of lex talionis – let the punishment match the crime – goes out the window.  It takes effort to match the response to the offense; it takes even more effort to let the response be less than the offense, or to not respond at all.

Many people have commented negatively about these words of the Pope:
You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others."
Question: have you ever been trying to make a point verbally and can’t seem to find the ‘right words’, the words that best explain what you’re trying to say?  Your first efforts aren’t quite right, aren’t quite the way you want to express yourself; then we hit on the ‘right words’, which end up encompassing everything we said before.

Go back and read the Pope’s words again, but reverse the order of the sentences: you can’t make fun of religions because it will insult the adherents of that religion and provoke a reaction, which may end up being ‘retaliation’ because ‘retaliation’ is ‘normal’.  I say this based on another statement from the Pope:
"There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others," he said. "They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit."
He repeats the theme of making fun of, making ‘a game’ out of religions, thereby speaking badly about them – he’s saying we should not deliberately ridicule any religion simply to embarrass, humiliate, or antagonize its adherents.  What I don’t see him saying is that we ought not to examine and point out facts and ‘difficulties’ about religions. 

Now, that last sentence – ‘There is a limit’ – has been taken by many to mean the Pope is calling for legal restrictions on free speech, enshrined in law and enforced by the courts; ‘anti-blasphemy laws’, if you will.  I don’t see it that way.
We’ve all been hearing the cries of ‘freedom of speech’ since the attack.  And yes, freedom of speech is something all people ought to have.  But with freedom comes responsibility.  Simply because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it; you need to exercise responsibility and common sense, exercise common courtesy, and perhaps rethink your decision to deliberately ridicule anyone or anything.  And I think this is what the Pope meant when he said, ‘There is a limit’ – a limit we need to impose upon ourselves.

Again, that’s not to say we self-censor when it comes to pointing out facts, something the mainstream media seems hell-bent on doing whenever the religion-which-needs-no-introduction is involved.  Rather, we need to engage our brains before we engage our mouths – or our pens, or our keyboards, or our sketchbooks and colored pencils – and ask ourselves, ‘Are we deliberately ridiculing another faith, or are we pointing out facts?’

There’s a great difference between pointing out, for instance, that the vast majority of terrorists have been members of the religion-which-needs-no-introduction, and drawing an uncensored picture of the back-end of a stark-naked prophet-who-shall-remain-anonymous (and yes, that was one of the Hebdo cartoons).

The error I see in the Pope’s words comes here:
His pretend punch aside, Francis by no means said the violent attack on Charlie Hebdo was justified. Quite the opposite: He said such horrific violence in God's name couldn't be justified and was an "aberration." (emphasis mine)
It’s an aberration from a Christian viewpoint; it doesn’t seem to be from the viewpoint of the religion-which-needs-no-introduction, simply based on previous history.

As far as the alleged cowardice of other news outlets for not publishing the cartoons, that’s fodder for another post.  Suffice to say, there’s a difference between deliberate ridicule and dispensing of facts.  Neither of these is acceptable to the religion-which-needs-no-introduction.  Perhaps we ought to rethink the former and use a bit of common sense in our judgment.


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