Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech

We Americans boast routinely about free speech, being so proud of the right that we put it smack at the top of the Bill of Rights. So, perhaps, it should be. But there are unfortunately degrees to which it must be seen negatively. This seems especially true in light of the recent attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The attack is of course indefensible. But an underlying and important questions is: does anyone have the right to offend simply for the sake of offense?

There are folks who opine that free speech means the right to say offensive things. They forget that there are two ways in which someone is offended: either when the listener is a fool, or when the speech in question is genuinely offensive.

No one has a moral right to voice offensive remarks solely for the sake of making offense; that is simply rudeness at best and insulting and vulgar at worst. To say that they have such a right under the guise of free speech is really only to hide irresponsible behavior behind a pretty face. As rights only grow from responsibilities, it is reasonable to argue that the right to speak freely comes from the obligation to speak truthfully, in the reasonable interests of ourselves and the general society, and considerately, so far as circumstances may allow.

Still, the only way to really stifle morally offensive speech is censorship, and the problem with censorship is that it is only good when good people are in charge. When bad people hold the reigns, then good and necessary free speech will be prohibited. It is a risk we cannot take.

In the end, though, no one has the right to say offensive things, but merely the practical option of expressing them freely. No one has the right to be wrong in the truest sense of the term, but only the free will to be in the wrong. Until we understand that, we really won't understand the importance of a well regulated freedom at all.

Be all means, the French and the free world must search for and bring to justice the perpetrators of such inhumanity as what was wrought against the staff of Charlie Hebdo. But we should careful about defending the victims too easily on free speech grounds. The crimes committed against them are crimes against their humanity, not against their supposed right to provoke merely to be provocative. We need to understand the difference between free speech and truly offensive speech if we are to have any humanity in us at all.

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