I stand alongside anyone arguing for freedom of speech. But sometimes also against them. And alongside the other side too, sometimes. Such is walking the moral tightrope

Tightropes are by definition dangerous things; the challenge and appeal is that you could fall off either side and requires incredible balance. Grant Robertson has discovered the danger of not just the act, but the metaphor as well when he tweeted about the Charlie Hedbo killings.

Across two tweets Robertson wrote:

"My heartfelt thoughts with the families/friends of staff of Charlie Hebdo + people of France in the face of such tragedy. Supporting freedom of expression, secular + religious, can mean walking a moral tightrope. Extremism in action + response is never the answer."

That was pounced on by two Punditeers. On Twitter Phil Quin responded by asking Robertson to explain the tightrope metaphor and argued:

"how is defending religious expression along with the right to blasphemy a moral tightrope and not a moral boulevard?"

Then Josie Pagani wrote here on Pundit saying Robertson had not explained what made him morally uncomfortable, writing:

"No one doubted Grant would be against killing. It doesn’t take much courage to oppose mass slaughter. What takes courage, and is vitally important, is to stand up for the right to offend people. Full stop.

There is no moral tightrope here. As Phil Quin said, it is a moral boulevard leading to undiluted outrage at slaughter, unqualified support for the right of satirists everywhere to lampoon the pious, powerful and stupid.

It’s easy to fight for views you agree with. Freedom to express views without fear of violence or death is about freedom to express views you don’t agree with."

Now, far be it from me to intercede in a lovely Labour debate, but while Phil and Josie obviously disagree with Robertson, I would – on different levels – agree with all of them.

When talking about freedom of expression in the context of satirists being murdered for their work, most people in this country will agree on a few things.

First and foremost, that no-one should die for their work or their points of view.

Second, that satire and the right to mock and lampoon is an important part of a free society.

Third, that violence – especially the taking of lives – is no way to respond to a contest of ideas and only begets more violence and more hatred.

Yet, I tend to side more with Robertson than Josie and Phil on this for the simple reason that I agree a moral tightrope does exist. It would be fabulous we could settle on some absolutes and simply declare as Josie does "there is no moral tightrope here". But of course there is.

While I understand Josie's desire to stand strongly alongside the victims and against such a horrific act, given the devils and angels tangled up in any human action, I'm not sure if there's ever a case where you can declare there is no moral tightrope. Or at least, that there is not a need to balance an absolute with at least a whisker of another view point. There is always a line or a limit.

Look at those three moral points I laid out just a few paragraphs ago. While I said then most people would agree on them, it's fair to say that a) millions around the world would not and b) even those who would (and would die for another's right to express something they disagree with) could find a scenario in which they would switch sides.

Hitler is the easy strawman in such arguments, but you can insert any tyrant into the lines to come. While I wrote "no-one should die for their points of view", if your point of is that millions should die (as per Hitler), is there not a case for your murder? And therefore, is there not a case for responding to a contest of ideas with violence?

Even pacifist and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler, choosing to reject his core moral beliefs in this particular instance.

As for the second point, won't even the most liberal mind draw a line of taste somewhere along the spectrum of satire? Some, seemingly Josie and Phil among them (though I stand to be corrected), argue satire should be absolutely free. Perhaps even that freedom of speech is absolute. But I disagree, and by disagreeing with them must agree that there is a balancing act – and therefore a moral tightrope – to be considered.

No right comes without some responsibility; every right has a limit. Satire is not a magic word which means you are exempt from that.

Yes, satirists have the right to challenge and even offend.

Yet we have laws to limit it from inciting violence or defaming, for example. We ban certain images. And even inside the law there are examples that would be questionable at the very least. What about a KKK cartoonist who drew racist cartoons about African-Americans, for example?

Would millions then say "Je Suis KKK"? Is that the extreme we need to go to to defend free speech? Or would you draw a line somewhere before that?

Because to many Muslims, the "Je Suis Charlie" line could be seen in the same light as we might see "Je Suis KKK". Whether you agree with that or not, is it not reasonable to want to stand alongside offended and oppressed Muslims whose despair makes them want to resort to violence as well as the slaughtered journalists? Should we not avoid making this into an "us" and "them" debate, a trap that even the usually spot-on Jon Stewart fell into this week? (I should add, most of his words in this case were also spot-on, just not all).

As some in the thread responding to Josie's post have argued, satire is best used as a weapon against the powerful on behalf of the weak. Some have argued Muslims in France are, typically, poor and disenfranchised, while the cartoonists at Charlie Hedbo much closer to the power of the establishment. That raises a whole other argument about power. For example, are you still weak and powerless when you pick up a machine-gun? Haven't modern jihadis shown that with the right backing you can be poor and disenfranchised and incredibly powerful at the same time?

And at the most basic level, there are the competing rights of 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom to live without fear and prejudice'. Of course there's a moral tightrope in that debate as we seek to balance the two; it's central to the human condition.

That is not to say the Charlie Hedbo team deserved to die. Or that a KKK cartoonist would deserve to die. Or that we shouldn't swiftly respond to this atrocity by naming it as such and strongly reaffirming our commitment to free speech, even speech that we disagree with... and I don't imagine more than a handful of people in New Zealand would argue otherwise. Yet let's not pretend the discussion ends there or that the debate occurs in a black and white world of goodies and baddies.

There are lines to be drawn and tightropes to walk, as always.

Yet it's been interesting to see how quickly those daring to put another point of view in Josie's thread (which is supposed to be the very freedom being championed in this debate) have been accused of coming close to justifying the murder.

I don't think those arguing the cartoons were racist and therefore provocative are explaining away murder, just as I don't think those warning that they are at risk of doing that are hypocrites who argue for free speech then try to label those who take another view as terrorist sympathisers.

What it does show is that this is a complex and nuanced argument where various things can be partly true at the same time.

And that's why, while I agree with Josie's sentiment and much of her argument, I reject her line that "there is no moral tightrope here". With human morals, there is always a tightrope, always a balance, always another point of view.

 

Comments (47)

by Phil Quin on January 11, 2015
Phil Quin

We are talking about the murder of twelve people who died for their work as satirists. As others have pointed out, pontificating about how or whether their cartoons offended the supernatural religious beliefs of the people who slaughtered them is the exact equivalent on fixating on what a victim was wearing before her rape.  I did not "pounce" on Grant Robertson; I was simply baffled by his use of the metaphor "moral tightrope" in responding to the killings at Charlie Hebdo, and so asked him to explain what he meant. He evidently tried, as have you, but I can't make head nor tail of it. For the record, I am no longer as 'Punditeer' as you know since I informed you as such in earlier correspondence. 

by Cushla McKinney on January 11, 2015
Cushla McKinney

This is such an emotive issue that I think the tightrope metaphor is justified. However  I tend to agree with Andrew O'Hehir  the_real_politics_of_charlie_hebdo_it_wasnt_about_religion_or_free_speech

 that these kind of arguments risk distracting us from fundamental issues surrounding the terrorists'  attack, which he sees as a political rather than a religious act, and one in which the reactions of Western societies and our leaders are extremely important in determining whether they succeed.

by Liam Hehir on January 11, 2015
Liam Hehir

This apologia is pretty strained.

"Even pacifist and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler, choosing to reject his core moral beliefs in this particular instance."

I'm sorry but that's worse than useless as an analogy. The July plot wasn't hatched because of anything Hitler believed or said. It came about because he, as the dictator of Germany, was keeping the country in an unwinnable war. A coup was attempted as a measure to save millions of innocent lives. I'm pretty sure that neither Bonhoeffer nor Stauffenberg would have thought it justified was just a crank in Bavaria. 

Put it this way: was the July plot was justified as a "rejection" of Hitler's "core moral beliefs" then would it also be justified to murder Neo-Nazi leaders for what they say and believe today? After all, they hold the same vile beliefs and propagate them on the internet. The question hardly needs answering.

A tyrant actually, you know, killing people is so far qualitatively removed from the act of lampooning a religious figure that the logic of the argument simply fails.

If you are interested in "the competing rights of 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom to live without fear and prejudice" then you might do well to learn about some of the substantial and carefully considered jurisprudence about when expression begins to encroach on the rights of others. 

But nothing in the present atrocity comes close to raising these issues. Charlie Hedbo never threatened anyone with harm. It simply declined to give special reverence to one minority religion when it routinely mocks and makes fun of others. 

In a Catholic-minority society like ours, did the Virgin in a Condom constitute a "moral type-rope"? Set aside whether national museum ought to have displayed it. Is the issue of whether the artist concerned had a right to create and display it a difficult moral question?

by william blake on January 11, 2015
william blake

+1 Cushla.

by Tim Watkin on January 11, 2015
Tim Watkin

Cushla, O'Hehir makes a good point and I love the Didion quote about needing to observe the observable and not read too much into things. On the other hand, it seems he then goes on to make a series of the kind of broad and complex points he's arguing against. It seems to me that to say this attack was entirely political and not motivated by religion on any fundamental level is to equally fail to observe the observable.

My point is that things can be all kinds of true, and so this attack can surely be seen through political, religious, personal and many other lenses and each of them can show some important yet different truth.

by Tim Watkin on January 11, 2015
Tim Watkin

Phil, I struggle to believe you don't have the imagination or intellect to make head or tails the complexities I've described, but I'll take you at your word.

You keep returning to the rape analogy – and certainly everyone seems to go to different analogies in these sorts of arguments, which best represent their world view. And while not as convinced as you are that it's the most perfect analogy (and by definition isn't "the exact equivalent"), I'll go along with it for the sake of discussion. So yes, I was pretty clear that like the rape victim's dress, what these cartoonists drew should not have made them victims of a terrible crime. Poverty, faith or powerlessness does not justify rape or murder.

But the analogy breaks down at that point for me, because rape is a crime that seldom if ever has a wider political context. This attack, as O'Hehir writes in the piece Cushla links to, was political and those killed victims not only because of their own work, but because (I think it's reasonable to presume) a wider point about liberal democracies and religious beliefs was trying to be made.

There is also not a competing right at play – the rapist does not have any 'right' to sex, yet the Muslim (be it an angry young fundamentalist or any other) has the right to some level of tolerance. And while we can be absolute about rape, I'm guessing you would not be so absolute about political violence. Or would you? What I'm getting at is that sexual violence is never OK, yet some pushing and shoving in a protest or even taking up arms against arms against an oppressor (the Hitler example again) can be justified.

Finally, I can imagine a situation where, if the cartoonist had not lost their life or be at risk of violence, I could support action (legal, protest, whatever) against that cartoonist for going too far. That could be due to their racism or sexism or defamation or whatever. Yet I can never imagine a situation where I would support action against a woman for what she might wear.

Not sure if that helps you be less baffled and to understand better, but that (and the arguments made in my post) are why I think there is a moral tightrope here and rape analogy is the wrong one.

by Tim Watkin on January 11, 2015
Tim Watkin

Liam, please don't think I'm drawing any moral equivalence between a tyrant killing people and satire by cartoonists. Go back to the context. I was writing a post arguing there is a balancing act in this case, there is a line to be drawn when it comes to freedom of expression and disagreeing with the assertion that "there is no moral tightrope here", is all. The Bonhoeffer example doesn't have to be precisely equivalent for it to serve my argument – it's only there to show that there are limits and exceptions to almost every rule, and no more.

Hope that's clearer. (and if so, you'll understand the other points you make are all valid, but not at odds with what I'm saying... Except to argue that I'm making a moral and philosophical case, so don't feel the need to have to be an expert on jurisprudence to have a considered opinion).

by Phil Quin on January 11, 2015
Phil Quin

Tim, you claim I "keep coming back" to the rape analogy I have referred to precisely once. 

And you say rape is not a weapon of politics? Having spent several years working in East Africa, I beg to differ. 

by Ross on January 11, 2015
Ross

"I can never imagine a situation where I would support action against a woman for what she might wear."

Only last week the BBC apologised because one of its presenters was showing too much cleavage. Nearly 400 viewers complained. Never say never, Tim!

http://www.dailyedge.ie/rita-ora-the-one-show-outfit-1868887-Jan2015/

 

 

by Ross on January 11, 2015
Ross

As some in the thread responding to Josie's post have argued, satire is best used as a weapon against the powerful on behalf of the weak. Some have argued Muslims in France are, typically, poor and disenfranchised, while the cartoonists at Charlie Hedbo much closer to the power of the establishment. 

That at is largely irrelevant, Tim. Satire can be used against anybody. More importantly, these terrorists likely would have attacked a cafe or supermarket if they had not attacked CH. Indeed, just a day or two ago, four people were killed by terrorists at a supermarket in France. Attacking the cartoonists because they're satirised Muhammed was an excuse. The fact the killers waited three years to attack should be a sign they simply wanted to killfor the sake of it.





by Lee Churchman on January 11, 2015
Lee Churchman

We are talking about the murder of twelve people who died for their work as satirists. As others have pointed out, pontificating about how or whether their cartoons offended the supernatural religious beliefs of the people who slaughtered them is the exact equivalent on fixating on what a victim was wearing before her rape.

That is a bad comparison. Firstly, even if a woman is dressing with the intention of being attractive to men, she neither intends nor does any kind of wrong to any men whom she causes to find her attractive. Secondly, even if it does put her at a higher risk of being the victim of sexual assault, it would only be a prudential rather than a moral failure on her part, and would for that reason not count against the culpability of anyone who assaulted her. 

In the second aspect the cases are similar: baiting terrorists, while not conducive to good health, is not a moral wrong (it might well be if the satirist's actions were proven to put people other than themselves at risk). The fact that the satirists trolled Islamic terrorists doesn't make the murders less vile. 

But in the first aspect, they are not. Offence is in most cases a minor wrong, but it is still a wrong, and  setting out to wilfully offending others is something that decent people avoid, especially when the people you are trying to offend are a marginalised group in society, and what you are doing seems to reasonable people to be aimed more at creating outrage than criticising beliefs. I think that is what is causing people to pause: there is a suspicion that the satirists were less interested in criticising religion than they were in simply winding people up. That's objectionable, even if it doesn't appear to rise to the level of objectionability that would justify censorship.

So there's a couple of obvious moral differences between the cases – the woman does not intend harm, and does not even commit a minor wrong.

by Liam Hehir on January 11, 2015
Liam Hehir

Tim,

I don't think you understand my objection to your example. You say:

Liam, please don't think I'm drawing any moral equivalence between a tyrant killing people and satire by cartoonists.

I don't think that and didn't say that you were. I said that it was an incorrect analogy. You seem to think that the only difference is a matter of degree - when in fact it is a qualitative difference.

You brought up the July plot as an example of a potentially to reaction to expression with violence. But it was nothing of the sort, it was a violent reaction against violence. As a matter of ethics and philosophy, that is a whole different kettle of fish.

More generally, I think this is a false nuance. When I point out the volumes of American first amendment jurisprudence on the matter, I merely mean to say that there is a long history of some of the world's foremost minds grappling with marginal decisions about when the right to free speech should be trumped by other concerns - including when it makes other members of the polity unsafe.

Simply put, cartoons lampooning religious figures does not raise these issues.

Interestingly, France does have thought-crime legislation on the books and Charlie Hedbo has found itself having to defend itself in court before. It was acquitted.

by Bruce Thorpe on January 11, 2015
Bruce Thorpe

I have not read every bit of the to-ing and fro-ing, so i might be duplicating views stated by others.

I am a very strong advocate, and avid practitioner, of the right to free speech, but I am also an opponent of hate speech, efforts to expose others, especially the vulnerable, to contempt and the ridicule of others.

I am an opponent of bullying.

 

Just as I attacked the blogger we do not name, for his vilification of the dead and the bereaved mother, so I understand that to some citizens of France, the questions of tolerance, respect and racial incitement might be paramount.

 

by Alex Coleman on January 11, 2015
Alex Coleman

An interview here with a CH cartoonist, in which he describes his discomfort and bewilderment at the magazine becoming a symbol; the very thing they oppose:

http://www.lesinrocks.com/2015/01/10/actualite/luz-eyes-us-weve-become-s...

 

by Fentex on January 11, 2015
Fentex

This idea of a moral tightrope seems to be that claiming an absolute right to free speech probably shouldn't include an absolute right to promote violence.

Which is a switch in context from people unambiguously supporting freedom of speech that, <i>of course</i>, doesn't support advocating violence.

I rather think it's an unstated given of the issue to hand and it's an error to shoe horn a debate on where the obvious limits are - unless you're trying to argue <b>Charlie Hedbo</b> was on the wrong side of such limits - and people will draw that inference from an attempt to insert the argument.

I think that's what Derek Fox did, he argued that insulting cultures and religions is something people shouldn't do (and then that doing so justified retaliation). He was wrong on two accounts - that insulting culture and religion is wrong, and that such errors (if they were) are sanctionable by death.

Thus I think to introduce the argument that there's some kind of tightrope to walk, in this context, is to imply that insulting someone's culture and religion is beyond the pale.

And many, including I, discard that opinion as erroneous. It may be rude to insult anyone at any time for any particular reason but that's an issue of manners, not acrobatics on a tightrope.

by Danyl Mclauchlan on January 12, 2015
Danyl Mclauchlan

I think the rape analogy is useful because it reminds us that people like Derek Fox are wrong: the moral (and legal) responsibility for a crime rests with the criminals who made a choice to commit it.

Where the rape analogy falls down, I think, is that going out, and having a drink, and wearing what you want to wear are very reasonable things to do. They aren't inherently dangerous (they should be safer than they are). The Charlie Hebdo guys were deliberately doing something very specific that they knew was really, really dangerous. They were publishing racist Islamophobic cartoons against a background of violence and religious and racial tension. In that respect I'd argue that they're more like those guys who go out and climb Mount Cook in the middle of a storm when DOC is warning everyone to get off the mountain. They have a right to do that, they don't deserve to die, but it's not reasonable to go and climb a mountain in the middle of a storm just to prove that you can. 

by Lee Churchman on January 12, 2015
Lee Churchman

They have a right to do that, they don't deserve to die, but it's not reasonable to go and climb a mountain in the middle of a storm just to prove that you can. 

I think that way of putting it is confusing. Deliberately offending people is a bad thing to do. All other things being equal, it is wrong, and we ought not to do it if we can help it.

It's easier to conceptualise it using the distinction between strict and moderate duties. Strict duties are those that allow coercive state enforcement when they are violated; moderate duties do not. An example of a strict duty would be to refrain from killing people, whereas refraining from cheating on your spouse would be a moderate duty. 

Respecting freedom of expression is a strict duty (although there may be rare cases where there are overriding concerns). Refraining from offending people is a moderate duty. So it's sort of misleading to say that you have a right to deliberately offend people because you have a right to freedom of expression. What you have is a right not to be subject to coercive enforcement from the state merely for offending people. There is no moral right to be an asshole – there's just a moral right not to be punished by the state for being one. That's just to say that the law doesn't extend as far as morality does, and for good reason. 

That the actions of the satirists were morally indefensible doesn't make their killings justifiable. Vigilantism is morally problematic and, more importantly, the death penalty is a wildly inappropriate response to offensive behaviour.

There is no moral tightrope here. Either the actions of Charlie Hebdo were so damaging to public safety and the safety of minorities that they warranted censorship, or they weren't.

Free speech rights can't be absolute in any case because one person's speech can silence another's ability to speak (philosophers call this "illocutionary disablement" – it's quite interesting) – so choices must be made on other grounds.

by Tim Watkin on January 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Sorry Phil, I thought you'd used it before; must have been someone else. I understand your point that rape can be used that way, but you see the limitations of the analogy otherwise don't you?

Lee, thanks for carrying that argument on. Not sure if it's of any use to Phil's understanding, but you're fleshing out what I was trying to say. However there's a 'but' in your comments as well... In the normal course of human interaction it is rude to wind people up or seek to offend. But one reason satire/humour is such a difficult tightrope to walk (he says making his point again!) is that it operates outside those normal rules and gives some licence to offend. Quite how much is a question of taste and is where much of this debate stems from.

by Tim Watkin on January 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Danyl, the point you've made several times (at least I think it was you!) about them knowing the risk of what they were doing is an interesting one. I don't disagree that they were choosing risky behaviour in the light of the threats made, but for some reason I find it a hard argument to get in behind. I guess because even if the risk is clear, your life shouldn't be at risk for just drawing and provoking. (Whereas mountain climbing for example is inherently risky). It's just so disproportionate.

And I guess that in this instance knowing the risk and doing it anyway on a point of principle could be seen as heroic. Indeed, I'd argue what they were doing was heroic in some senses, precisely because they knew the risk and yet carried on.

And yet... a) I still think there's a balancing act here and b) I'm not sure the expression of that heroism is something I'd want to champion. Or rather, I'm at least a little conflicted. Whereas the choice by a Bonhoeffer or Tutu, for example, to risk their lives seems to have been heroic both in its stance and its gracious and loving expression, these cartoons are less clear cut for me.

by Tim Watkin on January 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Liam, I'm afraid I'm not getting your point. You're right, I was using it as an example of violence being used against violence, which was contrary to Bonhoeffer's core beliefs. He got involved anyway because on balance he thought Hitler's assassination justified an exception to a deeply held rule. And that was my point, that there's almost always a scenario you can find that shows morality is not clear cut or black and white.

by Phil Stewart on January 12, 2015
Phil Stewart

Perhaps we can boil it down thus: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. Just don't be a dick about it.

by Tim Watkin on January 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Fentex, I'm certainly not buying Fox's argument. But don't you think there is a degree of offence and a degree of violence (or at least opposition) and somewhere along that spectrum you may switch sides? Eg, anti-semitic cartoons might warrant a boycott. Or violent offence might warrant violent retaliation. 

I'm not sure whether Charlie Hedbo's work was too far along the spectrum to warrant much reaction at all. (And NO work is far enough along to warrant murder). But offending someone's culture or faith can feel beyond the pale to those offended. If that offence takes the form of the holocaust, then presumably violent retaliation is warranted. If it's a few cartoons, obviously not. But amidst all that I still reckon a tightrope exists.

by Tim Watkin on January 12, 2015
Tim Watkin

Yay Phil! Agreed.

Except one man's dick will be another man's comic genius. And sometimes being a dick is the right response to dickish behaviour or beliefs. And any set of collective beliefs (say, a religion) may be a mix of very good and very dickish beliefs. And sometimes you have to weigh either expressing yourself freely or being a dick to one person against how that will impact other people.

Hence (some of) the debate...

by Andrew Geddis on January 12, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Two points:

(1) This whole debate seems to me to sum up why Twitter is useless as a medium for saying anything meaningful (as opposed to pithy/witty/cutting). 

(2) It seems to me that many of those who actually have to make decisions about whether and how to talk about/represent the story see it as involving just the sort of "moral tightrope" that Grant might have meant. I guess it's a lot easier to deal with it when no-one either notices or cares about the blogsite you're talking on.

by Andrew Geddis on January 12, 2015
Andrew Geddis

@Tim:

And I guess that in this instance knowing the risk and doing it anyway on a point of principle could be seen as heroic. Indeed, I'd argue what they were doing was heroic in some senses, precisely because they knew the risk and yet carried on.

The problem being, of course, that it wasn't just those who voluntarily acccepted the risk that died. The first person shot was Frédéric Boisseau, a maintenance worker who just happened to be in the street outside the Charlie Hebdo offices. 

So, should I make use of my right to freedom of speech in a way that foreseeably will result in others dying because of it? That sounds like a bit of a moral tightrope to me!

 
by Lee Churchman on January 12, 2015
Lee Churchman

In the normal course of human interaction it is rude to wind people up or seek to offend. But one reason satire/humour is such a difficult tightrope to walk (he says making his point again!) is that it operates outside those normal rules and gives some licence to offend.

Well, as you said, the target matters. Powerful people can shake it off. Those who are marginalised have a tougher time, meaning that the satirist requires a lot of skill to pull it off. Here I think they misfired frequently and ended up upsetting a lot of people who didn't really deserve it. But the fact that it is debatable is why refraining from offence is a moderate duty in cases like this. If there's a moral tightrope in this case, in my view it's not between free speech and state censorship.

by Lee Churchman on January 12, 2015
Lee Churchman

So, should I make use of my right to freedom of speech in a way that foreseeably will result in others dying because of it?

The problematic term there is "foreseeably". It's almost impossible to judge the risks in cases like this. Even if people had made threats against Charlie Hebdo, most threats, by the very nature of threats, are empty. People usually make threats instead of doing what they threaten precisely because they aren't prepared to do the thing in question.

by Andrew Geddis on January 12, 2015
Andrew Geddis

@Lee,

Agreed - but that uncertainty simply makes the moral equation even more difficult to solve. So let us imagine:

(1) A situation where a gunman walks into my public law lecture, places his gun against the head of a student and tells me that if I carry on my lecture he will kill her on the spot.

(2) A situation where a student posts on the facebook page of second year law "Geddis' lectures are so boring they make me want to do a Columbine on the room".

I don't think very many people would suggest that the morally correct (or "heroic" or whatever) thing for me to do in situation (1) would be to carry on my lecture without regard to the threat issued. Of course, I still have a "right" to do so and would not be breaking any laws if I did ... but it would be the wrong thing to do. Conversely, I think it would be wrong (or cowardly) for me to cancel lectures in situation (2) - I can recognise it as poorly thought-out hyperbole that won't result in concrete action.

The threats against Charlie Hebdo then seem to me to fall somewhere between (1) and (2). There was, after all, sufficient grounds to take them seriously that the paper's editor had a permanent police bodyguard. And the offices had been firebombed. And, of course, anyone else thinking about following a similar course today has to take Charlie Hebdo's fate into account when deciding what to say (and how to say it). Which makes the issue quite morally fraught ... a tightrope, even.

by Tim Watkin on January 13, 2015
Tim Watkin

Andrew and Lee, agree with you both. Using your freedoms in a way that puts others at risk must give pause for thought at least. But to not use your freedoms in the face of threats is to give in to bullies and oppressors. Even if those making the threats are amongst the oppressed... This is why it's such a circular debate.

Thing is, Andrew, the gunman may have no intention of pulling the trigger while the Facebook poster could be committed to murder. Which, again, is why you can't be hard and fast about any of these things.

I mean, at the governmental level America tries to draw hard lines, such as 'we don't negotiate with terrorists' even if the gun is pointing at someone's head. Yet we know they sometimes do... as they walk that moral tightrope!

by Danyl Mclauchlan on January 13, 2015
Danyl Mclauchlan

And yet... a) I still think there's a balancing act here and b) I'm not sure the expression of that heroism is something I'd want to champion. Or rather, I'm at least a little conflicted.


I think conflicted is absolutely the right way to feel about all of this. Finding the limits of freedom of speech in multicultural societies is really hard. 

I also agree that these guys should have been able to publish what they wanted without it being dangerous. But that's an argument about pragmatism versus idealism. If people want to risk their own lives for idealism then that's fine, but as Andrew has pointed out, in this case the stakes were really, really, really high, and it probably wasn't worth risking a whole bunch of other people's lives, and mosques being firebombed in reprisal, and a surge in popularity for far-right political parties, and all the other fairly predictable outcomes of this mess for the sake of idealism. 

by Ross on January 13, 2015
Ross

"it probably wasn't worth risking a whole bunch of other people's lives, and mosques being firebombed in reprisal, and a surge in popularity for far-right political parties, and all the other fairly predictable outcomes of this mess for the sake of idealism. "

That is a logical fallacy. It was the actions of the terroristst that led to the firebombing of mosques, the alleged surge in popularity of far-right political parties, etc. Needless to say, it was inevitable that this would occur at the same time that the terrorists would be hunted and either captured or killed. It was not inevitable that any cartoonists would be murdered.

You continue  to miss the point that if the terrorists had not killed, they likely would have targeted a supermarket or a cafe or a synagogue. Four people were recently murdered by terrorists in a French supermarket...can you explain what risks the victims took because I am not aware they took any?

 

by Ross on January 13, 2015
Ross

But that's an argument about pragmatism versus idealism. 

Yes, wouldn't it be great if politicians mean what they say and don't lie? Having said that, I don't believe they should be murdered for telling porkies...

by Tim Watkin on January 13, 2015
Tim Watkin

Ross, you're not wrong. But neither's Danyl. If this group of young men were determined to me martyrs, they would have found another target. But then it would have been another target and another reason. The maintenance worker, for example, wouldn't have died. Someone else would have. But that's little comfort for the family.

OTOH, like satire, journalism has some obtuse ethics that are at odds with the normal civil behaviour Lee describes. Satire is meant to provoke a reaction; there's little point doing it if you're not getting one. Similarly, journalism is (often) meant to confront and challenge. And journalists are always angering people or being hassled by some agenda or another and it is considered a core principle of the craft that you carry on regardless... even regardless of the consequences. So it's bloody tricky.

by Peggy Klimenko on January 13, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

I've read the comments here. It seems to me that the distinctive features of French society, in particular its secularism, its tradition of robust freedom of speech, and the deep history of very muscly satire, are being overlooked by some commenters. Or perhaps not overlooked so much as the implications not really being taken fully into account. This may stem from the fact that here in New Zealand, we are in general quite lily-livered about freedom of speech issues; we have no real tradition of pushing the boundaries with satire, as has happened in France for centuries. Even the US - especially the US, some would say - has a more robust approach.

Secondly, talk of a "moral tightrope", and questioning the limits of freedom of speech in multicultural societies feels uncomfortably like it could be glossed as "They asked for it, but we can't quite bring ourselves to say so". Much of the "letters to the editor" commentary is in the same vein.

They most certainly did not "ask for it". The cultural and political milieu in which they worked gave them the freedom to satirise mercilessly. Dear god, that we should be so lucky here! And they should have been able to do what they've always done without being shot up by a bunch of religious extremists with their empathy genes switched off.

The fact that France is secular, and expects immigrants to assimilate without cutting them any slack over it, is just plain irrelevant, no matter what French Muslims or anyone else may assert to the contrary. Islamist extremists are equal-opportunities thugs: look at what's been happening in Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Somalia. None of these countries is an open secular democracy, but it doesn't stop the adherents of the various iterations of Islamism from inflicting egregious brutality on their fellow Muslims.

I've come around to the view that the French approach to immigrants has a great deal more to recommend it than, for instance, the pusillanimous British policy in respect of its Muslim population. Not so long ago, Angela Merkel, was reported as saying that multiculturalism in Germany was a failed experiment. She urged immigrants to do more to integrate into German society, including - amazingly - learning German: many of us wouldn't have thought that she even needed to say it, but there you are. See this:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-german-multic...

And while I'm on the subject - and I've read so much commentary in so many places that I can't off-hand recall whether anyone's done it here, but just in case someone has - people really need to leave off with the "racist" and "Islamophobic" epithets. They're completely unhelpful and suggest that those slinging them about don't have a countervailing argument. It sure ain't racist or Islamophobic to name brutal criminal behaviour for what it is.

by Tim Watkin on January 14, 2015
Tim Watkin

Peggy, I think everyone on this thread and Josie's have been pretty clear – no-one thinks the victims of this crime were 'asking for it' or are to blame for their own deaths. For me, that's a strawman of an argument. The debate is around more nuanced points – whether they provoked it, where the limits of satire are (if any. Because how merciless is too merciless?), what offence or provocation would be sufficient to make you resort to violence (if any), and whether it's clear cut that freedom of expression trumps all.

What do you make of those questions?

by Peggy Klimenko on January 14, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim Watkin: " ...whether they provoked it, where the limits of satire are (if any. Because how merciless is too merciless?), what offence or provocation would be sufficient to make you resort to violence (if any), and whether it's clear cut that freedom of expression trumps all."

Whether you like it or not, this comes across as attempting to find justifications for a criminal act: "They asked for it", in other words. There is no justification. These people are religious extremists - as are the religious extremists in the US who have fire-bombed abortion clinics and killed clinic staff. I can't recall anybody here debating provocation and so on over those instances. Nor should anybody be doing so over the Charlie Hebdo atrocity.

I've come to the view that freedom of expression must trump all. What's the alternative, if it doesn't? Whose voice will be allowed, and whose silenced? In this country, we have a legal system to which people can turn if they feel that their rights have been encroached upon by others exercising their right to freedom of speech: incitement to violence, for instance. As does France, of course. But satire French-style is intended to incite raucous laughter, not violence.

In any event, there's been plenty of reporting on the motivations of the Islamists, so I think that their right to freedom of expression has been pretty well protected. As has been our right to be repulsed by both their beliefs and their behaviour.

by Alex Coleman on January 14, 2015
Alex Coleman

Peggy, I think the comparison with US abortion clinic bombings is off in a few respects.

As Lee has said a few times, if these guys didn't attack CH, they would have attacked something else. I agree with this, and would add that the timing is often more important than anything else.

Terrorism is designed to elicit strong emotions. It's designed to come out of no where and produce a "fucking hell , these psycho bastards wtf" reaction in the targeted population. It's natural to react that way. But research has shown that terrorists are no more 'psycho' than the general population and are actually more stable than the criminal population that we could think of them as a subset of.

Yes, they are ideologues, or religious fanatics, or whatever. You have to be committed to a radical cause to have decided on this course of action. But that too isn't an explanation of why they did what they did. Terrorism is strategic, and symbolic, and designed to provoke reactions from the state.

We know these guys went for training some time ago. Why attack now, and not last year? What sort of thing are they trying to provoke? What are their strategic, (rather than symbolic) aims?

Assuming they are stupid and that the symbolism of the attack, ('avenging the insult to the Prophet'), is the strategic aim would be a mistake if they not actually stupid.

CH did not bring this on themselves. They are not to blame. They were a symbolic target for terrorists. There could have been other such targets, harder to hit, more protected targets maybe.Or targets with less symbolic value. But CH was the target the terrorists selected, and the terrorists are, of course, to blame.

And I agree with Prof Silke here:

https://twitter.com/AndrewPSilke/status/553623286073262080

 he says "I suspect very little of what has happened over the last 3 days, incl the end, has deviated from the terrorists hopes and expectations".

They have provoked quite the reaction, and have everyone talking about the symbolism, and contemplating how we must 'react'.

 

 

 

by Peggy Klimenko on January 15, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Alex Coleman: "I think the comparison with US abortion clinic bombings is off in a few respects."

I disagree. In both cases the motivation was religious extremism, whether or not the Islamists would have attacked some other institution. As they were getting into their car, the attackers shouted that they were avenging the prophet, so the prima facie motivation was religious, even if the attack is part of a wider strategy.

"CH did not bring this on themselves. They are not to blame."

Of course they're not to blame; that was what provoked me into commenting in the first place. Tim Watkin's post discusses the "moral tightrope", and many comments raise issues to do with the limits of satire and free speech in a multicultural society, along with whether CH staff brought the attack on themselves. As I said above, that could be glossed as "They asked for it, but we can't quite bring ourselves to say so." By framing discussion in this fashion, commenters lay themselves open to accusations that they're blaming the victims. And it is that to which I object.

"We know these guys went for training some time ago. Why attack now, and not last year? What sort of thing are they trying to provoke? What are their strategic, (rather than symbolic) aims?"

In my view, it's really important not to over-think this. The most likely explanation is that al Qaeda organised this attack; it was aimed at showing off their ability to give France a bloody nose, and it was now because it took this long to get resources together. In the absence of further evidence, that's a plausible hypothesis.

 

by Lee Churchman on January 15, 2015
Lee Churchman

@Peggy

Whether you like it or not, this comes across as attempting to find justifications for a criminal act: "They asked for it", in other words. There is no justification. 

With all due respect, I think you're confused here. When we talk about retaliation being justified, we're typically talking about appropriate punishments (whether these be meted out by the state or wild west style) or self defence (which isn't really retaliation). That's what people mean when they say that someone "deserved it".

Here's a test case. I see woman on the street and intimate to her that she is the roughest looking sow I ever saw. In response she calls me a fat, bald git (some of which is true). Now I guess that most people would say she responded with an appropriate level of retaliation and that I deserved it. On the other hand, if she pulled out a pistol and shot me dead, there's no sane person who will say that was an appropriate response. Sure, my insult was the cause of her reaction, but causation and justification are not the same thing. Nor is her culpability reduced in any way by appealing to my having done something bad. She's as guilty as any other murderer and ought to be punished as any other murderer. My insulting behaviour, while wrong, did not make the threshold required to mitigate her wrongdoing. This is roughly equivalent to the Charlie Hebdo situation: even if we deplore their efforts at satire, that doesn't excuse or mitigate mass murder – but neither do the murders sanctify or justify their efforts at satire. Similarly, we might feel less sorry for people whose anti-social behaviour results in them being murdered compared to innocent victims, but that still doesn't mean we have to think they deserved it more – it's a separate issue.

I've come to the view that freedom of expression must trump all. What's the alternative, if it doesn't? Whose voice will be allowed, and whose silenced?

Nobody believes this. Freedom of expression is legally restricted in all sorts of ways to protect other rights, and it's also true that one person's exercise of free speech can prevent another person from expressing themselves. Here's a famous example in ethics: to say "I refuse" is itself an act of refusal, but, for me to be able to refuse, other people have to be able to recognise what I am doing when I speak. But pornographers take great delight in depicting situations where women say "no" to sex, but end  up enthusiastically participating: in other words "no" doesn't really mean "no" in these contexts. If these become cultural standards, then female speech is restricted, because women are unable to have their refusals recognised as refusals. It's impossible in practice to have unrestricted free speech because some people can use theirs to prevent other people from being understood. If you think that's fine, then the right to free speech really means right to make vocal noises. 

Tim's right when he says that journalists and comedians are – via their social role – allowed greater latitude when it comes to offensive matters. That's true, but it's not an unlimited right – they must deliver their message in the way that minimises potential harms. 

by Lee Churchman on January 15, 2015
Lee Churchman

Terrorism is strategic, and symbolic, and designed to provoke reactions from the state.

And it does so because we're hopeless at perceiving risk. You're many more times likely to die in a car crash or be murdered by your spouse than you are likely to die from a terrorist attack. The actual effect of attacks like this on the ability of western societies to function is effectively nil. Sure, they'd like to cause general mayhem, but they don't have the resources or manpower to do it – if they get lucky, it's because the targets were ridiculously negligent security wise (like on 9/11). It just looks scary because we watch too many bad films. 

We'd also be in trouble if bioweapons and chemical weapons were suitable for terrorism, but they aren't (the Japanese subway gas attack was a notorious flop – they would have killed more people with conventional weapons). Those who stoke paranoia about terrorist nukes have yet to explain why anyone who has spent billions of dollars developing nuclear weapons would then gift one of these priceless items to a bunch of uncontrollable fanatics in full knowledge that the source of the weapon would eventually come to light and the supplier's country would be obliterated.

Terrorism is dime store s*** and we would all be better off if we treated it as such. 

by Alex Coleman on January 15, 2015
Alex Coleman

Peggy,

"In both cases the motivation was religious extremism"

contrast:

"it was aimed at showing off their ability to give France a bloody nose"



by Tim Watkin on January 15, 2015
Tim Watkin

Peggy, while I agree that it was a religious attack and I don't go as far as those who discount that and say it should be seen in purely political terms, I think it's wrong to go the other way too and over-egg the religious element. This attack is many things at once and (a grossly distorted) faith is as much an excuse as a reason.

And I utterly reject any suggestion that by looking at causes and balancing rights and responsibilities, that means I'm saying anyone deserved to die. It only gets "glossed over" if you are determined to read it in that simplistic fashion. So I guess you can choose to make your own point true by telling me that my words "come across" in a certain way to you and yes I can be open to the accusations you make. That's all good discussion. But now that I've come back repeatedly, said otherwise and explained why, I'd hope you'd go beyond the "gloss" and think about the ideas beneath.

And Lee has made the rest of my points. I don't think you're really saying that freedom of expression should trump all, are you? Even defamation and inciting violence or the ol' shouting fire in a crowded theatre? Assuming you agree there should be some restrictions, we come back to the point of the original post – we all draw a line somewhere.

by Tim Watkin on January 15, 2015
Tim Watkin

And this interesting piece challenges some of my arguments quite effectively... While I don't really care about the purity of the left and some of the academic point-scoring in there, it does give a very good background into Charlie Hebdo's (and the peculiar style of infantile Parisian satire's) place in French culture.

Including this:

It was born a left-wing publication, indeed a far-left publication, brimming with insolence and bile for capitalist, governmental and clerical elites. In the English-speaking world, malheureusement, we don’t really have a tradition of satirical newspapers quite like Charlie Hebdo or its rival Le Canard Enchainé (The chained-up duck), which combine cheeky editorial cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion. The closest approximation would be Private Eye in the United Kingdom. But the format has spread throughout the francophone lands, with imitators in Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Africa, both sub-Sahara and the Maghreb.

Charlie also embraces a politics of anti-clericalism — a species of militant secularism that targets priests, monks, nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis and, latterly, imams and mullahs specifically as individuals (believed to be pompous, hypocritical figures preaching a morality that they do not observe themselves) and not just as representatives of a religion — that dates back to the original Jacobins in the French Revolution...

...Related to this, the paper’s style of comedy, gouaille — a bawdy, impertinent, insolent, often obscene humour corrosif — is a part of a Parisian tradition that finds its origins in the time of the French Revolution as well, and which Arthur Goldhammer, the translator of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, explains well: “It's an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful.”

It’s not witty. If anything, it’s rather juvenile. In mocking the idea that there should be no graven images of Mohammed, one of Charlie’s cartoons was of a naked prophet with a star instead of a bumhole under the slogan “A star is born.” It’s puerile, infantile, not infrequently unfunny. It’s fart jokes. It’s whoopie cushions. It’s Monty Python’s masturbation-themed and Vatican-mocking “Every sperm is sacred” sketch.

by Peggy Klimenko on January 15, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Alex Coleman: "In both cases the motivation was religious extremism"

contrast:

"it was aimed at showing off their ability to give France a bloody nose"


Nothing inconsistent about this at all. The proximate motivation was religious extremism, while the distal motivation was political. Although for Islamists, the religious and the political are inextricably intertwined. It's true for Islam generally, judging by polities where Muslims are in a majority.

@ Tim Watkin: "And I utterly reject any suggestion that by looking at causes and balancing rights and responsibilities, that means I'm saying anyone deserved to die."

I am saying - speaking for myself, of course - that discussion of this sort seems to come very close to apologia. Perhaps it's too soon to debate the merits of Charlie Hebdo's brand of satire; right now, we need to confine ourselves to deploring the egregious crime committed by the Islamists, and save critique of the cartoons for another time.

@ Lee Churchman: "Nobody believes this."

Well, clearly I do (although I did except incitement to violence); and that is because for the life of me, I can't see where it can be divisible, or how restrictions, no matter how well-intentioned, won't leave some people worse off. I'm old enough to remember when our news bulletins were routinely censored, and a lot of what went on in politics, along with most of the seedier side of life here either went unreported, or we heard only a sanitised account. Said seedy stuff - and political shenanigans - still went on: we just didn't hear about it. Victims of domestic violence, for instance, certainly weren't better off for that silence.

"...in other words "no" doesn't really mean "no" in these contexts. If these become cultural standards, then female speech is restricted, because women are unable to have their refusals recognised as refusals."

Judging by reportage of recent events here, I'd say we've missed the bus on that issue. Or (some of us who've been around the clock a time or two might say) so what's new?


by Tim Watkin on January 16, 2015
Tim Watkin

Peggy and Alex – any faith is intrinsically political.

Peggy, I'm intrigued that you believe that freedom expression trumps all except incitement to violence (although that's a very big 'out' that means it doesn't trump all, at all). But that means you reject all defamation law; any advertising and journalism standards bodies or any advertising restrictions (on accuracy of ads or not advertising certain products during kids' programming); any restrictions on prisoners' access to phones etc, anti-semitic or racist commentary/propoganda/whatever and so on, pornography...

That's why (I presume) Lee was saying "nobody believes that". We have so many restrictions around free speech that it seems unlikely that you really think free speech trumps them all.

by Lee Churchman on January 16, 2015
Lee Churchman

Judging by reportage of recent events here, I'd say we've missed the bus on that issue. Or (some of us who've been around the clock a time or two might say) so what's new?

It's a conceptual point, Peggy. If it's possible to show that one person's speech prevents another's, then the question of who's speech is allowed moral precedence (and who will be censored) cannot be answered by appeal to free speech rights, but must be decided by other moral considerations, so it's logically impossible for free expression to trump all other moral concerns. J.L Austin's work shows how it is possible for one person's speech to silence another's. Speech isn't just making noises – it's being able to do things with words (make promises, declarations, warn people, etc.).

Tim made the rest of the case rather well about the other grounds for restriction, so I'll leave that aside.

by Peggy Klimenko on January 18, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim Watkin: "But that means you reject all defamation law; any advertising and journalism standards bodies or any advertising restrictions (on accuracy of ads or not advertising certain products during kids' programming); any restrictions on prisoners' access to phones etc, anti-semitic or racist commentary/propoganda/whatever and so on, pornography..."

Beware the dreaded reductio ad absurdum! My view doesn't of necessity entail a "wild west" with no laws or standards, just that the default position is that freedom of speech trumps considerations such as - well - those you raise above, actually, along with position in society and the like. Those offended would still have recourse to the courts and agencies, as they do now. But I'd prefer said courts etc to find in favour of free speech. Countries such as France and the US manage to have a pretty robust environment. We could do worse than emulate them. I'd have thought that journalists especially would favour a freer environment. But let's not follow the UK: good grief...

My views on this issue used to be much closer to that which many commenters here apparently hold. Not these days though.

Thank you very much for the link you posted above: well worth a read for those who haven't yet done so.

@ Lee Churchman: "It's a conceptual point,"

Yes, I'm aware of that; my reaction to it, however, is in part influenced by both the current environment, and that which pertained many years ago when I was young. Perhaps another example would be more apposite.

That aside, I think your assessment of the risks of terrorism (15 January) is spot on. Would that other people had such a clear-eyed view!

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