Tag Archives: Media analysis

The myth of free speech in the Western world

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists this week were atrocious and unfair. There is never any justification for the cruel massacre of 17 people and the terrorizing of a whole city for three days. But I am not Charlie and I feel very uncomfortable with the global endorsement of that hashtag. Although it has been pointed out to me that the hashtag is just a show of solidarity for the victims, I am extremely uncomfortable in supporting free speech that makes fun of Boko Haram sex slaves – sexually abused children – to make a (racist) point about welfare.

In a breath of fresh air, the leaking of internal Al Jazeera emails to The National Review revealed that they have privately positioned themselves against the global support of Charlie Hebdo. One of the quotes that most stood out for me was the following by journalist Omar Al Saleh: “Journalism is not a crime [but] insultism is not journalism. And not doing journalism properly is a crime.”

In the fast-paced world of online journalism and Twitter, a condemnation of the attacks and an unquestionable support for free speech was demanded left and right. It has become a matter of “If you’re against Charlie you’re pro terrorism/against free speech,” whereas the question here should really be: “Free speech is great, how do we use it responsibly?”

Even if free speech is an unquestionable right the Western world prides itself in, the right to publish anything you want doesn’t excuse the use of irresponsible, racist, polarizing cartoons. You are free to make fun of Boko Haram sexual slaves but the question is – should you? (Hint: No.) David Brooks of the New York Times puts it well:

“(…) Whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

“We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

“But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (…) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.” – David Brooks, I Am Not Charlie, The New York Times

The thing about freedom of speech is that it does not exist in a vacuum where it has no impact, especially if you are a journalist exercising your right in a major publication. Once your words appear in a magazine or newspaper, those words matter and they will influence the people who read them. You may tell yourself that people will decide for themselves to be racist and that you had nothing to do with it – but if you publish a racist sentiment you are validating thousands of racists who already feel that way and you might influence people who don’t know much about the subject.

Some people have claimed that Charlie Hebdo’s racist cartoons have spurred on debate about Islam. And here, I ask: who was part of this debate? Was Islam presented accurately by white cartoonists who probably don`t have any Muslim friends? Through the medium of the depiction of the prophet with a star on his ass, was Islam represented fairly or was it vilified? What use is a debate where only one side is heard – the side of the voyeurs?

Free speech is not about petulantly publishing offensive content that adds nothing to difficult conversations we should be having about religion, race and oppression. And neither is it “brave,” like many have claimed – it is actually pretty cowardly to incite Islamophobia in a country where Muslims are increasingly discriminated against. It is ignorant and reeks of white privilege.

Religions are not beyond reproach but the Charlie cartoons were very racialized and polarizing – they othered a group of people. Extremism can and should be questioned but not to the expense of generalizing an entire group.

The Myth of Free Speech

Much has been said about how free speech is under attack in the Western World because of this attack. Frankly, this is extremely hypocritical when, as a woman online, I see the silencing of people of colour and women every single day.

It can be through extreme harassment in orchestrated attacks or just a woman being pushed out of a forum because of gendered slurs aimed at her. It can be through the prominence of racist cartoons over the voices of real Muslims where Islam is concerned: and the erasure of these voices and the lack of positive representation of Muslim characters in the media can result in violent Islamophobia and othering. I have heard of female journalists being told their content was “too women centred” or too “politically correct” for the broader media. As the brilliant Sunny Hundal puts it:

“(…)Let’s also stand up for free speech when Muslims are being threatened. Some of the voices I hear piping up about free speech only do so when Muslims are the perpetrators not victims.

“That isn’t just inconsistent, it also makes me think you don’t really care for the principles at stake. And that also makes it much harder for all of us to convince Muslims about why they should embrace more free speech and the right to insult their religion.” – Sunny Hundal, Why do liberals find it so hard to persuade Muslims about free speech?, Liberal Conspiracy

It must be pointed out that in France, the use of the hijab is forbidden. In 2012 several Muslim institutions sued Charlie Hebdo for their racist content but the case was dismissed. To me, this is a clear double standard: racist cartoons inciting hate? Okay. Embracing Islam as a religion publicly? Not okay. This is only one instance in which free speech is exposed as a myth, or rather a selective right: it is only available to the powerful majority.

We are kidding ourselves if we idealize journalism as some kind of noble profession when a lot of the content is produced for profit. Of course, the fact that it is for profit does not mean it cannot be used for good and for the public interest but your commitment to free speech is extremely polarized if you think everyone has the same footing when joining in the conversation.

Journalists, I am sceptical about your commitment to free speech if you are not seeking diverse voices to include in your work. Editors, I am sceptical about your commitment to free speech if you are not striving for a more diverse pool of writers. I am sceptical about the commitment of most of the press when their opinion sections look like this:

The Times, June 2014.
The Times, June 2014.
The Times, January 2015
The Times, January 2015
Question Time panel after the attacks in Paris.

Go ahead and say “But I am pro-diversity!” but this is not about you or your opinions. This is about systemic violence that silences women and people of colour across the Western world and the fact that people aren’t outraged about that. I am not Charlie Hebdo because I believe a diverse set of voices – not polarizing racist cartoons – will set us free.

UPDATE: Adding this helpful read about the two-layered type of humor Charlie Hebdo is all about – as well as an explanation of how it is also exploitative and racist.

My thoughts are with the friends and family of the victims of the massacre and the Muslims who will undoubtedly suffer Islamophobia as a result of these attacks.