“Freedom of speech”, Western hypocrisy and the responsibilities of privilege

by Rinu

This week, a lot has been stated and debated about so-called ‘freedom of speech’.

In the wake of the killing of a dozen people at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, condemnation for such horrific violence, as well as expressions of sympathy for the victim’s families have been the dominant reaction.

That aside, there has been an outpouring of solidarity from cartoonists, journalists and the general public, such as the messages shared through the hashtag #jesuischarlie, after what they believe has been a murderous attack on ‘freedom of speech’, supposedly an ideal engrained in our societies that is being threatened and perhaps already dismantled. Essentially, to them it should be perfectly acceptable to satirise Islam in their work. What is wrong with depicting the Prophet Muhammad, when the same paper has similarly mocked Christianity’s Holy Trinity, for example?

The issue here is that this idea of a right to ‘freedom of speech’ as is preached in our Western societies is riddled with hypocrisy and an ahistorical ignorance of power dynamics. Some great blog posts and articles have been written around this issue. At sallysopinion, a straightforward explanation is given as to how and why with ‘rights’ comes responsibility, and that responsibility involves not using your liberties to further oppress already oppressed groups.

Freedom of speech needs to be carefully considered. Until we live in an ideal world, where people can be expected to laugh it off because it doesn’t represent centuries of oppression, your words will still have a massive consequence, and a reckless support of your right to say whatever the hell you want only reinforces existing privileges.

The key part here is ‘centuries of oppression’, something that unfortunately the majority of people never care to consider. This is articulated excellently by Teju Cole in his new piece for The New Yorker, as he explains why countries like France, the UK and the US are not at all havens for freedom of speech,

…Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies…

…A tone of genuine puzzlement always seems to accompany terrorist attacks in the centers of Western power. Why have they visited violent horror on our peaceful societies? Why do they kill when we don’t?…

…The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible…

Inevitably, the type of thinking expressed in the above writings, that is of the utmost importance if we truly want to eradicate violence in our international community, has been met with backlash. How dare people challenge this fundamental right to say anything we please about absolutely any person or group? And how dare we do it so soon after the victims’ death? Reactions like this are fascinating because firstly, they display the traits of absolutism that is decried as being inherent in religion. Of course, when you are unwilling to acknowledge a history of violence, colonialism and racism against certain groups, responsibility will mean nothing to you and you won’t believe in that your words will invoke (violent or non-violent) reactions and have consequences. Additionally, this will happen in the context of our stronger governments using their power to perpetrate large-scale acts of violence with close to no fear of ever being scrutinised or held accountable by their (usually blindly-patriotic) citizens. Secondly, we must strongly oppose those who claim it is not the right time to talk about the repercussions of certain abuses of power. If these sad deaths can allow us to fight strongly in the name of ‘freedom of speech’, then we must also be able to deconstruct the absolutistism, ahistoricism and hypocrisy it carries.