Fear. The power behind the definition of this four-letter word has stopped even the most tenacious in their tracks. We fear the unknown, the lack of acceptance by our peers, any threat to the security of our daily lives, and most of all, we fear death.
We are very aware of how we are perceived, and an end result of that is that most people wish to be seen as a paradigm of social perfection, emulating either what is perceived to be ‘right’ or fashionable. Governments are equally faced with this fear of how they are perceived. To evade many issues and uprisings, the general public is fed with comfort food for the ears – vague statements that help to stall decisions and provide ephemeral placation. This fear has complicated government to a point where process has degraded into procedure and progress has become appeasement.
As was famously penned by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the opening line of his The Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Human nature hasn’t changed very much since. We are creatures that like to stratify and organize all parts of our lives while simultaneously climbing the social ladder, all the while in fear of defeat and criticism. Included in the organization of our world are all of the values and traditions that weave together to create our personal identity – our nationality, our religion or lack thereof, our sexual orientation, our political affiliations, our educational background, our job specialization, our likes and dislikes. Yet, though these aspects represent the fingerprints of our uniqueness within the collective, they are also areas that sometimes foster fear and conflict, particularly in two domains: 1) the fear of an attack on our personal identity and 2) the fear of the judgement or conflicts between others who do not share in the same identities. This is where we begin to place ourselves “in chains.”
It has become a trend to think that by simply passing legislation one can fix all of the world’s ills, almost as if we were prescribing a remedy for our fears. That unfortunately is not the case. The process that has been set into place to make governments function was intended to provide a catalyst for general responsibility. The process provided by government is only one means to an end. When we start to take into account the variety represented by individual rights, we start to realize the mammoth undertaking it would be to address each issue. These individual and social rights therefore can be interpreted as self-executing rights – ones that are not necessarily explicitly covered by federal law, but still hold validity.
One very important self-executing right has recently come into the spotlight in light of the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France – that of the freedom of expression. Never before have I seen such a vast array of responses from different news sources or personal connections in reaction to an incident. Some responses were filled with messages of solidarity and hope for the French people during the tragedy. Others had posted online that one ‘reaps what one sews’ and were ‘not surprised.’ Many reactions were in direct target to Islam, either for or against. Armchair activists that had only days before never heard of or read the publication began to chastise the authors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo for hateful publications. The hashtag #JesuisCharlie has become a worldwide mark of support. #JenesuispasCharlie has also appeared, as well as #JesuisAhmed – representing the fallen Muslim police officer.
There are several important points that can be taken away in wake of these despicable acts of terror committed, particularly in relation to the right to freedom of expression.
Firstly, if one takes a look at the history of Charlie Hebdo, one will see that this is not the first time that the publication had been involved in legal or social skirmishes due to its content. In 2006 for example, Charlie Hebdo was taken to court for its publication of several cartoons that related to Islam. France, along with many other countries, have laws that limit the mass publication of what can be defined as hateful speech. (One can refer to these laws for further reading and analysis: Loi du 29 juillet 1881 sur la liberté de la presse, article 24; La loi n° 90-615 du 13 juillet 1990 (Loi Gaysot); Code pénal – Article R624-3, link here).
The court’s holding found that the cartoons and publications were protected under the law, as they “mocked fundamentalists, not Islam or Muslims.” (Viscusi, Bloomberg Online, 2007). Therefore, it was their fundamental right to be able to publish their opinions.
This leads to the second point – what exactly can be identified as hateful? Does everyone agree? The difficulty with enforcing such laws deals with the fact that what is considered ‘hate’ is usually a relative concept. Some will agree, some will disagree. Furthermore, by denying certain ‘controversial’ groups their right to participate or to express themselves in the public forum is a surefire way to breed conditions under which a suppressed subject might force its way to the surface in more violent ways than writing or drawing. In grade school, it was common for the teacher to ask students to express their feelings to resolve issues, rather than bottling them up. The same goes for adults, too.
Let’s return to the idea of the organization of our world. Freedom of expression is liberating because it allows us to address our individual needs in a way that enables others to understand and respond to them, making our lives more stable and fulfilling. What becomes frustrating for some is when they encounter the product of another person’s expression – be it a cartoon, a film, a novel, or a political speech. When these creations are in diametric opposition to one’s personal values, the creation becomes offensive, frustrating, demeaning, and controversial. In many cases, some people are even afraid of facing anything that even remotely challenges or goes against their status quo.
Is there an easy solution to this situation? Absolutely not. Since the issue is so relative and is mainly based at the individual level rather than the collective, the best we can do is to take the advice of another eighteenth-century philosopher – that of Voltaire. He wisely articulated that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” We will never entirely agree with what other people will say or think. There is no law that can ever change or will ever change that. What will move us forward towards a more open forum of respect, responsibility, and free discussion is to always have an open mind, particularly to those who hold a differing viewpoint.
Face your fears.