Free speech includes the right to offend
The massacre in Paris raises the toughest questions about free speech. Not everyone thinks Charlie Hebdo was the right poster boy for liberty. The critics called the magazine's attacks on Islam crude, even asinine. Its lampoons of the prophet Mohammed were infantile, its satire merely oafish.
What's more, its motives were open to question. Charlie's provocations, it might be argued, were aimed partly at publicity. Its usual sales were a mere 30,000, and it knew that outrage was good for circulation.
It also deliberately provoked those most likely to attack it. A cartoon in its latest issue now looks almost like an invitation to violence. A jihadist, taunted that there had been "no attacks in France yet", replies, "We have till the end of January to pay our respects."
In 2012 the magazine ignored its government's advice and published crassly sexual cartoons of Mohammed. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, asked: "Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?"
Was the martyr Charlie Hebdo, in other words, just reckless and stupid?
The usual answer, of course, is the cliche wrongly attributed to France's gadfly philosopher Voltaire: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." But signing up to this proposition is a much bolder step than many realise.
Interpreted strictly, it would mean defending many things that appal well-meaning liberals. It would mean defending the right of a reactionary magazine to publish racist or anti-Semitic propaganda. Either you believe in free speech or you don't, as the Left-wing philosopher Noam Chomsky once said, illustrating the point by writing a foreword to a vile tract by a French Holocaust denier. Chomsky was widely criticised for this.
In fact, freedom of speech must mean freedom of speech for fascists and fools as well as democrats and the well-intentioned. It also means defending the right of satirists who deliberately provoke fanatics. Charlie Hebdo had been firebombed once before for insulting Islam. It knew how dangerous it was to keep pouring fuel on the fire.
At the point when gunmen slaughter a roomful of journalists, however, all doubts about Charlie Hebdo's bona fides are silenced and all quibbles over the quality of its work are cut short. If offended fanatics can murder their critics, freedom of speech is dead and democracy is at bay. That is the point at which "We are all Charlie now," as the liberal protesters have it.
The massacre in Paris will play into the hands of the Right and will provoke frightened reactions among conservative people who would never dream of supporting political murder. Many voters have no time for Left-wing satirists and no loyalty to abstract political principles.
Some religious people - Christian and Muslim - think their views deserve a privileged place. They - and others - want the law to ban blasphemy or "hate speech". Nonsense. Free speech includes the right to offend others and the right of others to denounce you in equally offensive terms. Call it the Charlie Hebdo principle.
- The Dominion Post