Now, I’d like to start by condemning violence as a solution to anything and also by supporting free speech. I thought about showing my support for free speech by starting with a really sexist joke or a link to one of Larry Pickering’s cartoons, but I decided against because I thought it might offend people to the extent that they reacted emotionally and didn’t understand the point I was trying to make.
Over the past few days, “free speech” is a term that’s been cropping up in the media quite a bit and it’s easy to become confused when people bandy round words with more than one meaning – like “free”. It’s even harder to have a sensible discussion when the whole concept of something is never clearly articulated by most of the people using it.
In various articles, letters, comments and opinion pieces I’ve read about the French killings, I notice that many people see them as being an “attack on free speech”. I’ve even read a letter to the editor which argued that we must now protect free speech by clamping down on all the preachers of hate, which struck me as slightly hypocritical.
Free speech is a bit like motherhood. Most people are in favour of it when refering to one’s own mother, but when it applies to other mothers or potential mothers, the same people will argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to breed.
Andrew Bolt, of course, springs to mind with his front page complaints about his free speech being stifled, while he writes articles complaining about such things as The Festival of Dangerious Ideas considering the question “Are Honour Killings Justified?” (It didn’t say that they were, by the way, it was just examining the topic, but it was cancelled.
When the National Gallery of Victoria exhibited Serrano’s “Piss Christ” – a photograph of a crucifix developed in a cup of the artist’s urine – it created some controversy. Dr George Pell launched court action and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the work removed, citing laws against blasphemy. While this was occuring, the gallery was receiving threats from anonymous sources. The work was eventually removed after somebody attacked with a hammer.
At least, with Andrew Bolt and Dr Pell, we’re still talking about actual free speech, but I don’t see the killings in France nor the attacks with the hammer as being anything to do with free speech really. The cartoonists were not shut down by a repressive restriction on free speech by a censoring government or legal procedures; they were viciously murdered by assassins who had no regard for the law.
If I tell you that you have an ugly face or walk down the street expressing my free speech with comments like “I have more money in my pocket than you’ll ever have, you lazy welfare cheats” at random people, or go to a Ku Klux Klan rally with an “I love Obama” t-shirt, I am perfectly within my rights. The question is not one of free speech, because, while society will support my right to free speech, in these examples, it can only punish those who thought to take matters into their own hands. So I need to ask myself: What did I hope to achieve and was it worth the risk?
The editors at Charlie Hedbo thought so, and I applaud their bravery in sticking by their convinctions.
But I find it troubling that so many people are supporting the right to “free speech” without actually asking what Charlie Hedbo was hoping to achieve. If you think you know, that’s great. But if not, ask yourself, would you feel the same way, if we were taking about a group which you felt were publishing articles or cartoons that you felt contained deliberate distortions or lies? What if the group were supporting genocide or racism? Would you be saying that you didn’t support the actions of the killers but you could understand why they did it? Or would you be hash-tagging “I am National Rifle Association” just to show your support for free speech?