When ‘free speech’ becomes a kind of fundamentalism

The power of the pen has never been more evident. EPA

The shock and sadness caused by the horrific events in Paris are quickly being translated into passionate professions of faith in free speech. Cartoonists, journalists and the wider public are all proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” and many newspapers are reprinting the provocative images of Mohammed to insist that their faith in this freedom will not be shaken.

But in affirming this faith, we should be wary of lapsing into free-speech fundamentalism. As history shows, maintaining both freedom of expression and pluralism is difficult. Religious tolerance requires individuals to respect each other’s sacred beliefs.

The assassinated editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are being portrayed now as heroic defenders of press freedom, martyrs in the fight against religious fanaticism. And the crime against them is atrocious. But if all we learn from it is that press freedom is good (which it is) and violence against journalists is bad (which it is), we will fail to grasp the more complicated issue: how we actually go about balancing freedoms and religious pluralism. France’s own history with these principles should remind us of how delicate this balance is.

Moral autonomy

Free speech and religious pluralism were born in France in 1789, at the outset of the French Revolution. Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen stated: “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law”. Article 11 declared the “free communication of ideas and opinions to be one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may therefore speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”

Note the combination of freedom and legal limits in both articles. For French revolutionaries, freedom meant moral autonomy, not the absence of all constraints. They sought to abolish pre-publication censorship but insisted on legal limits for injurious speech, such as libellous attacks on individuals or on the sacred beliefs of groups.

The initial failure of revolutionaries to define or enforce those limits allowed insults and slander to proliferate unchecked. The effect was an escalation of politicised hatreds, which culminated in radical limits being imposed.

Indeed, much of the violence of the French Revolution, when free speech and religious freedom came into being, grew out of the failure to regulate freedom to prevent attacks on honour and sacred beliefs – both beliefs in the sanctity of throne and altar and the sacredness of the new revolutionary nation.

Rights vs responsibilities

Society is more fragile than we think. Freedom of speech is an incontestable individual right, but if we want to live in a pluralistic society where different religions can co-exist, we need to cultivate a climate of respect for each other’s religions, especially minority religions.

Today, Muslim religious beliefs in France are being attacked from many sides. While the state bans forms of religious expression in public institutions, including wearing headscarves in school, Charlie Hebdo has taken a stance by publishing provocative images that equate Islam with terrorism.

Police guard a building in the hunt for the gunmen. Yoan Valat/EPA

Growing intolerance for Muslims, combined with socio-economic stresses, is turning France into a pressure cooker. The likely result of this will be a heavier deployment of police. And is a more heavily policed society really the goal of free speech? In a democracy, the aim is to define limits on freedoms democratically, rather than allowing the Leviathan state to impose them.

Unbounded freedom is not enough to guarantee peaceful coexistence. Until recently, Western societies generally viewed rights and responsibilities – freedom and legal limits on them – to be inseparable. After 1968, notions of freedom, which inspired the founding of Charlie Hebdo, took a more strident, libertarian turn.

This shift from freedom and legal limits to freedom as the absence of all limits was expressed in the 1970s and 1980s in a number of domains, notably, free-speech fundamentalism and free-market fundamentalism. January 7 reminds us that freedom of speech and religious tolerance are delicate, fragile and potentially combustible matters.

Ultimately, religious fundamentalism and free-speech fundamentalism are unhelpful. True, bullets and words are not the same, but, as history shows, words can trigger bullets. And while we should not equate murder and insults, we should recognise the power and impact of our words. After all, don’t we want words to have power? If not, what is the point of free expression?