Here’s what I’m beginning to understand in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
That we’re all Charlie, but not so many of us are Ahmed.
That you can use free speech as long it’s not to disagree with what Charlie Hebdo were doing.
That it’s OK to lay into people on Twitter and Facebook viciously in the context of attacking a crime of hatred and defending free speech.
That it’s OK to retweet bile blaming all Muslims for the actions of the bonkers few.
Well for me, Charlie Hebdo’s slain journalists have simply proved a tragic truth: that actions sometimes have consequences, and that some of these are predictable.
We might not like this fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true. And in our modern world, where the fundamental interconnectedness of all things is more evident than ever, it’s not necessarily us who are impacted by our own actions.
If you poke a hornet’s nest with a stick, you are highly likely to get stung. If you provoke a pit bull terrier you are highly likely to get bitten. You are quite free to do either. The consequences may not occur, but by your actions you have made them far more likely.
So the question is not whether you had the right to do it – yes you did – but whether it was a smart and wise thing to do.
But still the freedom of speech cry goes up. “Self-censorship is the worst form of censorship”. “If you don’t agree, you must want to live in shackles”. Social media sites are alive with passionate defences of freedom of speech as an absolute right, as if it exists in a vacuum.
But hold on. Isn’t self-censorship what we all do, all day, every day. We are free to tell our bosses, colleagues, partners, families, strangers what we think of them. We could tell them they are lazy, ugly, annoying, talentless tossers. We could do this but we don’t, not even if it’s true (unless drunk at the Christmas party or occasionally just very cross).
We spend our lives self-censoring for two main reasons: empathy and consequences. We don’t tell people their hair or husband or house are hideous, because we know how that would make us feel. And we also don’t say it because we wouldn’t have many friends and our work prospects would be severely limited.
And to quote the most classic example of all, we don’t shout “fire” in a crowded cinema.
Self-censorship is a vital part of human behaviour. It’s why children come out with their glorious insults before they’ve learnt about it. As children grow, they move from “speaking the truth” to “speaking a modified version of the truth”, before hopefully arriving at “speaking the truth in love”.
Sometimes it is vital to break these rules and cause offence anyway. Sometimes there is an overwhelming public interest in breaching taboos, unveiling wrongdoing and shining light into dark corners. Human civilisation would not have developed much if no one had ever been prepared to challenge the status quo.
So the reasons not to offend – empathy and consequences – can sometimes be trumped by the “greater good” argument. The point is that these cases have to be the exception not the norm, and must have a basis in need.
It’s not really enough just to insult or offend people because you can. Especially if people who aren’t you might die.
In real life, we constantly rein in what we might say. We risk-assess the likely consequences of what we do say. Sometimes we get it wrong and friendships are ruptured. Sometimes we say nothing and wish we had.
Yes we have an absolute, inalienable right to offend (within certain legal frameworks). But do we have a need to offend? It is achieving anything other than offence for its own sake? For many, what Charlie Hebdo does is gratuitously offensive. Some of it may be biting satire with a really good point to make, but at least some content seems to have been offensive for its own sake. So I’m not even saying they were wrong to do it, if they felt it was right. Just that the consequences were always likely to be the carnage that has now unfolded.
The jihadi cult of course needs condemning, pricking and puncturing. It’s brutal, evil and ruining lives. But that’s not who Charlie Hebdo goes after. It’s all Muslims, and yes all Catholics and all Jews and all politicians and probably everyone who believes in anything.
So it is a defence that they were “equal opportunities” offenders, and that everyone got insulted, so that’s all right then? Well in the same way that the “greater good” exemption doesn’t seem to apply here, neither does the defence that you’ve insulted everyone equally.
In our age, it’s mainly Islam which has an associated cult likely to act (not exclusively, as Breivik, McVeigh and others have reminded us). At various points in history other faiths would have burnt you at the stake for less. And I guess the crusaders were the jihadis of their day.
Today you can insult whoever you like, but the people most likely to kill you for it are the jihadis.
So back to the hornets’ nest. If you poke a stick in, you are likely to be attacked. Fact. Yes you can also poke a stick into an ants’ nest or a badgers’ sett. It would be mean and wrong but you would be unlikely to face attack.
So Charlie Hebdo have proved what we knew to be true: that the hornets’ nest is a place best left alone, unless you are driven by the imperative of the “greater good” exemption.
The jihadi wing of Islam is pure evil and must be combated. Most of its victims are not middle-aged white professionals who have chosen to whatever extent to put themselves in harm’s way. They are everyday anonymous people in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, trying to get on with their lives, being brutalised and traumatised and murdered and driven from their homes. We never get to hear most of their stories.
It could be any of us too, in a shopping centre or on a plane or just minding our own business in a café. You don’t have to have insulted Islam to be considered a legitimate target by the Islamists. But if you have, you have created your own additional risk, and put others at risk too.
Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman whose murder was filmed, has lost his right to life and freedom. So too have the supermarket victims, and so the violence will spiral on.
Of course the jihadis themselves are not only motivated by insults to their faith – there are probably as many different root causes as there are jihadis. But these particular victims would still be alive if this hadn’t happened, and personally I would place their right to life above the freedom of speech of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists.
The outpouring of outrage at the Paris massacre is quite understandable, but the death of every single victim of Islamists is no less disgusting or unjustified.
The Charlie Hebdo journalists were talented, courageous people and I am deeply shocked at what has happened to them. They were doing what they felt to be right and they died for it. Provoked nor not, their killers had absolutely no justification for the evil they have done.
But there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and knowing the difference is what makes us wise. There is no point in stirring up a hornet’s nest unless you have a really, really good reason for doing so.