Charlie Hebdo Reaction: Part 1, Moral Weakness and the Case For Solidarity

(Originally posted here)

“Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.”

Preamble to the Laws of Cricket.

By the time I had got onto the internet following the Charlie Hebdo attack people had already begun to discuss how to react to those who murder for blasphemy, I quickly wrote a piece on it explaining why I thought it appropriate to reprint the offensive material and why it was unfortunately incumbent on all of us to call those in the media to account for not doing so. I think it has held up quite well. However, the weight of terrorist apologiavictim blamingmisplaced equivalenceintellectual laziness and moral weakness that has been ejaculated onto the web in the subsequent days suggests many people still cannot fathom the real message from this atrocity.

That message is this:

The maintenance of the full spectrum of free speech, except for those common law protections against harm, is an essential aspect of our society which all citizens have a duty to protect. This duty includes sharing the risks endured by those who may use their speech in ways you disapprove of and who express opinions you cannot countenance. The sharing of those risks includes media outlets reprinting offending material, both due to them being newsworthy by definition and because of the effect it will have in rendering attacks less effective. We need to arrive at the point where this position is the norm and any efforts that bring that to pass are required of us all.

How far from this we still are is seen by this Guardian piece addressing the latest cover.  In it Joseph Harker, Assistant Comment Editor at the paper says of Charlie Hebdo:

In depicting the prophet Muhammad it is deliberately offending the vast majority of Muslims around the world. And in caricaturing him holding a “Je suis Charlie” placard, they are adding insult to injury by claiming the prophet would support the values of the magazine, which for years has been widely criticised for targeting Muslims, in particular, under the cover of free speech.

Yes. That is right. He said they have ‘added insult to injury’. Those vile and cruel, mostly-dead bastards. How tasteless of them. How insensitive.

As it happens I think the latest cover is a masterpiece. It is perfectly judged. It shows they will not be cowed by theocratic nutcases, and as Padraig Reidy states in that same Guardian piece:

It is a challenge to those who in the past week, after throat-clearing on the horrendous murder of Charlie’s staff and their protectors, have attempted to switch the focus to the magazine’s supposed Islamophobia.

The very fact that the latest edition exists is remarkable and the fact that many media outlets have actually done the right thing and reprinted its cover is cause for optimism.

But because so many are still not grasping what’s at stake and that, unbelievably, in 2015 the arguments for supporting unfettered free expression still have to be made, this piece sets out from first principles the argument being advanced. This isn’t just an individual taste thing, it’s a wide and universal principle that we must show solidarity with the threatened.

Free speech and its importance:

A Starting Point

I don’t believe in this ‘absolute right of Free Speech’ learned apologists and appeasers keep informing us we do not have. Who does? It is a strawman.

America has it about right. We should have a negative right to freedom from restriction of expression and that traditional common law restrictions such as libel, forgery and incitement are accepted. I think Official Secrets protection is sensible and can accept some restrictions based on obscenity (e.g. child pornography).

The restrictions described above show clear cases of harm prevention and are based around the balancing of opposing rights. There is no right to not be offended and nor should there be. I therefore see no balance required between free speech and preventing offence.

I would add that I’m skeptical about some of the additional restrictions in modern Britain including our hate speech laws. Although supporting the motivation for having them I think the tendency for ‘mission creep’ in their application is real and liable to have detrimental effects. Especially those extending to religion. However it is perhaps not of immediate priority here.

With the above established the rest is a free for all as far as I am concerned. Yes people have a responsibility to be polite in their lives, manners are oil to the gears of life. But this is not a legal responsibility, if you want to be gratuitously offensive, you can. More than that, some people, French satirists for example, will see the generation of material that would be likely to cause offense vital for their cause and their attempts to progress society in their chosen direction. Nobody likes to be mocked or ridiculed and the ability to do so is a powerful weapon of speech. And must be protected. You may well prefer it when it ‘punches upwards’ or ‘afflicts the comfortable’, but that is a taste judgement and irrelevant here.

All this should be uncontroversial and fairly basic. However it is clear others do not agree. People talk of a ‘balance’ required, of ‘responsibility’ and even of ‘consequences’. All fine words on their own but if they contradict the state of affairs I have expressed above then I think them wrong. However, this is not an ‘agree to disagree’ moment. I refuse to ever reach that point on the broad strokes of this issue. Here is why:

Collective Responsibility

In contradiction to the rhetoric from activists of all stripes I think 21st Century Britain provides a relatively easy life compared to most of the world and all of our history.  It can therefore be understood why a person may think that the full spectrum of free speech available to them is a luxury they might do without. You’d be forgiven for thinking you have little need for the right to transgress, provoke or offend and that the loss of that freedom is a price worth paying for the mental comfort of those who may be offended. However, there are three clear problems with this view.

1: It is ahistoric

One of the key reasons our lives are better than most of those who have gone before us is that we have been able to use unpopular speech. Be it gay liberation movements fighting for equality, be it women fighting for suffrage, be it the struggle of rational thinkers against clerical supremacy, causes which have been of benefit to us have progressed through the ability and desire to transgress, provoke and offend.

2: You don’t know what the future holds

You may suggest you are cognisant of its previous worth but think those days of necessity are gone. We haven’t reached an end to history and so nobody knows when they will next have to use such speech which may shock or offend others. Comfort now does not mean comfort later.

3: It isn’t just your right

If you think you have little need for the full range of speech and collude in the trading of it for greater comfort, you aren’t just trading away your rights. You are trading away mine. You may be giving up the rights of somebody being oppressed in ways you are unaware of. This is not acceptable.

The third problem is what I want to concentrate on here and also is perhaps where this argument gets tricky.

When making the case for mass reprinting of offensive material I suggested that all people and not just journalists need to bear their share of the risk. I described us all as non-fighting combatants in the war against those who would murder for speech. This would include office cleaners, IT engineers and other staff. In a subsequent discussion I was asked ‘well what if the cleaning staff don’t believe in free speech’? My short answer was ‘well they don’t have any bloody choice’. I stand by it. They have a collective responsibility to protect free speech and I will endeavour to explain why.

Existential Threat. 

To suggest that free choice and free expression is so important that you have no choice about it seems self-contradictory. It is a paradox. I would compare it to the dilemma of when an anti-democratic party that would install a dictatorship is doing well in an election. In this instance there is a clear argument for the suspension of that party’s right to seek election as they would rob from future generations the right and ability to decide their own government.

The imposition of conscription, the suspension of habeas corpus, the curtailment of free speech and the appropriation of property are all things that were seen in the US or/and Britain during World War II. Such actions are extreme and we have to ensure such measures are always temporary and that the threat is real and warranting such action. This is mentioned to establish the principle that some form of compulsion to fulfill societally ascribed duties is an accepted norm when it is deemed necessary for the survival of the state or its peoples.

When not engaged in a general and all out war I believe the maintenance of the full rights to free speech earlier expressed are worthy of something comparable to this compulsion. Not from the state, with penalties, but socially, it should be a basic part of press ethics. To achieve and maintain this we have a duty to call people on not fulfilling their duties. There must be a societal norm and expectation to do so.  Because the prolonged absence of free speech rights is a recipe for such calamity as to be able to be deemed an existential threat to our way of life and eventually our lives. It may not be as an immediate threat, or as clear a threat. But it is a threat,

By way of example of such a threat, imagine a fascist and growing force that is seeking to have some of its ideological basis deemed beyond the bounds of normal expression and able to remain untouched by satire and ridicule. Surely there we can see something constituting an existential threat?

So where it may be a duty both morally and legally during a war to hand over property or provide your labour or fighting ability to the effort, I believe the same applies in peacetime to maintaining free speech and protecting all people’s rights to exercise it free from threat. I think this a primary and universal responsibility.

Injuring the Game

The best analogy I can muster to explain this primary and universal principle is from the game of cricket. The laws of cricket are biblical in length but there in paragraph one, page one, of the Preamble to the Laws of Cricket is the following:

Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.

Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.

This opening expresses the realisation that all players who wish to play the game first accept that the game itself is more important than their own ambitions within it. And that without that commitment to the condition of the game itself, the value of the results of their own ambitions is thus diminished. The good condition of the game therefore is the first responsibility and it is shared by all players on opposing sides.

In The Tolerant Society Professor Lee Bollinger states

…the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.

So as a society, we must first open the space for a free and rigorous exchange of ideas, we can then move on to bowling bouncers at opponents heads all day in pursuit of the win. But all share that primary responsibility first. A key part of that responsibility is to protect ALL speech. The game itself. Not just the parts that help your team win.

In Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky states:

If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.

The use of this cricket analogy is dependent on free speech being vital. I have explained above why I consider it so. I will also add that it is the most important right. I have been looking for some time for a quote I remember hearing and have failed to find it. So the following sentence is a paraphrasing of a thinker whose name escapes me.

Take away all my rights but leave me with free speech and I will use it to regain the others.

The right to free speech is the first and foremost right. It is the very basis for freedom of religious practice, it is the weapon for gaining new rights and is essential for the protection of rights already won. And all people share an equal burden in maintaining it.

The case for solidarity (reprinting the offending material):

Here is a statement of principle:

Once art/writing/satire is threatened with violence and murder it becomes important beyond its content.

To threaten the production or dissemination of artifacts of free expression with violence and murder is an attack on all free speech. And therefore the approval of the content is not relevant. It is an attack on your most fundamental right even if you despise the speech in question.

I repeat: It doesn’t matter if you agree with the content or not. You are duty bound to protect it.

It seems that the only way so far suggested to counter such attacks is what I describe as ‘option 2’ in my last piece which reiterated what I said in an earlier one on Sony and The Interview. Namely the widespread dissemination of offensive material by all and sundry when threatened. I quote:

the moment people threatened and indeed proceeded to kill over them, any news organisation worth its name had an obligation to publish. Firstly because it is news, but secondly and I suggest more importantly, as an act of defiance to the threat, of solidarity with the threatened and to ensure that the most ugly of precedents is not set.

This proposed action, I suggest will have the following positive effects:

1: When in response to a threat, rather than an attack, it acts to dissipate the risk onto as many shoulders as possible and thus diminishing the benefits of an attack. In short, you can’t kill us all.

2: The Streisand Effect will render threats and attacks counter-productive.

3: When an established norm it will provide the comfort for voices to speak as they wish without fear. This is good for all society.

4: It makes it clear they don’t stand a chance in changing our society in the way they’d hope. It will reiterate that our fundamental rights will be protected no matter what and as a society we are intent on maintaining them. So the required change in behaviour is incumbent on those wishing to silence speech.

5: It works against the trend of infantilising those lumped in with the ‘offended’ group who are instantly presumed to have been victims of controversial thought.

I know of no other suggestion. ‘Option 2’ is all there is. However when we speak of solidarity it must include the reprinting. Not the farcical and fraudulent expression of solidarity like the New Statesmen attempted to get away with. They managed to print an editorial titled Solidarity With Charlie Hebdowhere they proceeded to reprint several of Charlie Hebdo’s more racy covers including the Bishop of Rome in drag dancing at Mardi Gras. They did however manage to miss out printing any of the cartoons that actually got them killed. They are not standing with Charlie as much as affecting a desirable stance that looks like standing with Charlie.

Most other organisations have also failed to stand with Charlie. They have avoided printing newsworthy items because of fear and/or a desire not to offend. This too is unacceptable.

‘Getting to option 2’

There are three types of people in media not printing in solidarity or for news purposes.

Type 1: The first is honest, they won’t print because of fear of offense. These may well be people who revel in offending in other circumstances but they have identified a victim group here so it is a line they cannot cross.

Type 2: The second is dishonest and says they won’t print due to fear of offence but actually it is fear of violence.

Type 3: The third is those that accept they should reprint but do not because of fear of violence.

The first is probably lost to the cause and should be constantly called out on their failure. In my next piece I will try and analyse who these people are and what should be done about them. The latter two are worth trying to get on board and in the right circumstances will do so.

The reaction to the Danish Cartoons Controversy in 2006 was poor. Very few organisations disseminated the cartoons and some that did were pursued in court. It was a moment lost and had an incredible chilling effect on speech on this subject. As evidenced by Mohammed’s depiction being censored in South Park episode ‘201’ in 2010 whereas it hadn’t been in the earlier episode ‘Super Best Friends’ in 2001.

Things almost seemed to get better after the 2010 South Park controversy when Molly Norris proposed ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’. Unfortunately when the going got tough, Molly got going and it appears she is still gone 4 years later. Things were bleak.

The sheer ridiculousness of the Maajid Nawaz retweeting controversy in the UK, culminating in this laughable segment on Newsnight, seemed to help shift opinions. It had tipped into farce. The surrounding debate eventually included Newsnight showing the depiction in question. This was progress.

As depressing as much of the reaction to the attacks has been I think there are signs we have got further towards the goal from where we were in 2006 or 2010. The BBC seems to have amended editorial guidelines, the discussion of the requirement to publish is louder and larger than before and Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack edition increased its print run from 60,000 to 3m. It sold out in minutes and an additional 2 million are being printed. The Streisand effect if you will. This is good. Better still is that the depth of the atrocity combined with the brilliance of the cover means that organisations really looked stupid not publishing it. So many now have.

I’m sure Britain’s major editors have each other’s phone numbers. I am sure they will have used them to discuss such things as Leveson. Has it really been beyond their wits to get together, do the right and proper thing and decide to publish as one? I suggest no. And it is time they did.

I think that the next time this issue arises we will hit the tipping point where the refusal to do this appears so egregious that people will be forced, by others and by their own conscience, to publish. And for the reasons outlined above, I hope this is the case. The chill will begin to thaw.

It seems strange to need another terror attack or threat to achieve one’s goal. But then if there is no further incident, there will be no further problem anyway, rendering this discussion irrelevant. Unfortunately, I know which option my money is on.


I have largely avoided including all the counter arguments and examples of egregious thinking that have been out there. This is entirely due to length and I will deal with them in Part 2. There I will address the nature and tactics of those arguing the various positions that differ from the one expressed here.

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