Intolerance of individual free expression and political correctness can lead to violent outcomes.
Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. – Aristotle
When five journalists of the Annapolis newspaper, the Capital Gazette, where killed in cold blood by a lone gunman, it was a potent reminder that freedom of expression cannot defend itself against violence. The Annapolis journalists are the latest victims of one of the fundamental pillars that support our individuality – our opinions. Although the reasons for this barbaric attack have nothing to do with Islam, there is a similarity with the carnage that took place in 2015 at the Paris offices of the French satirical journal, Charlie Hebdo. The underlying motivation of the murderers is what they see as a “lack of respect” on behalf of the journalists. It is not lack of respect that resulted in the killings, but a tyrannic intolerance.
Divine rights do not grant us respect. Individuals are granted respect through their merit. As children, we learn to respect our parents, our schoolteachers and, in general, our elders, who all have a moral duty to earn our respect. There are more than 7 billion humans inhabiting our tiny planet, lost in the middle of nowhere. This astronomical figure signifies that there are, potentially, billions of individual opinions on any given subject, at any one time. Although groups tend to converge on opinions, the opinions within the groups themselves are from individuals. And since these are specific to individuals’ histories and sensibilities, freely voicing them will inevitably upset some.
The fundamental question posed concerns the boundary between criticism (the same applies to satire) and lack of respect. In particular, how can the former go unimpeded before being censored as a paradigm of the latter? Religious terrorists, in particular, have not addressed or defined the limits between criticism and lack of respect. Indeed, it is a question they have appropriated, occulted, and incorporated as part of their motives.
Claim that something is “offensive”, and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. – Christopher Hitchins (“Mau-Mauwing the Mosque”)
The negation of an appraisal between criticism and lack of respect has rendered extremists intolerant and extraordinarily arrogant. In the name of offensiveness, retributions can be carried out without further discussion, and take on a political meaning.
How dare you?
All too often, being offended is considered to be the end of a debate and not its beginning. Enragement replaces engagement, and offence is replaced by taking offence – a weapon used to strike against all intellectual opponents. Individuals who have taken offence become martyrs who are, in fact, half-God, half-human. They carry the absolute truth about themselves, others, and the world in which they live. In its most gruesome conclusion, taking offence results in the brutal murdering of others who do not share their views. It represents the culmination of our ultra-individualistic societies and cultures, that are characterised by lethal doses of arrogance, narcissism, and a profound lack of humility. It should be of great concern to all those who care about the world of ideas, that taking offence is becoming much more prominent and widespread than offence.
Arrogance and relying on emotion over reason play a large part in why people react with violence to the perceived offence. Although most people tend to react negatively to messages that challenge their beliefs, extremists are the ones who react violently. Whether we like it or not, “How dare you?” is our natural reaction to an unpleasant remark, as if each one of us should be immune from criticism.
But who is more arrogant? He who dares to criticise? He who refuses to be criticised, and seeks revenge?
In 2010, Sarah Palin avoided a debate concerning Muslim integration in American society, by eliciting a campaign against the building of an Islamic centre, a few blocks away from New York’s Ground Zero.
Whether you agree with her or not, is beside the point. Sarah Palin took advantage that others would also be offended by this and played with their emotions. She may well have been right in her views, but the method of her biased remarks was not. There was no attempt to initiate a dialogue.
Arrogance, coupled with the loss of reason, also applies to the Annapolis killer. Janod Ramos had a long-running dispute with the Capital Gazette and made no secret of his intention to use violence against journalists. In 2011, the newspaper reported that Ramos pleaded guilty to a harassment charge. Ramos claimed that the Capital Gazette had invaded his privacy and had unfairly represented him. He filed two unsuccessful lawsuits against the journalists.
Although constantly harassed by Ramos, the Capital Gazette decided not to file any lawsuit against him, in order not to worsen the already existing tension. In doing so, it only allowed Ramos to express his fanaticism and intolerance to the full. History has repeatedly shown that both fanaticism and intolerance have no limits. By continually keeping quiet, and not denouncing people who feel offended for all the wrong reasons, freedom of expression will dig its own grave. In contrast, the fanatics who take offence will act against those who seemingly offend them.
Keeping quiet, out of fear of offending a group, is not synonymous with showing respect. It forms part of identity politics that depicts people as group members, and not individuals. In the name of protecting the group, absence of criticism out of fear that the group may be offended only serves to enhance the very superiority of the rhetoric of “respect” it is opposing. It’s rather like not arguing with a child, because he will not understand your arguments, will surely start to cry, and you will probably upset all children.
While there are various ways to show respect for people some of whose beliefs and practices differ from our own, exempting those beliefs and practices from criticism is not one of them. – Stefan Collini
If a stupid movie caused outrage in the Islamic world, what would an intelligent one have done?
It is not necessary to watch the whole film on YouTube. The trailer of the 2012 “movie”, “The Innocence of Muslims”, has enough information on how bad the film is. It is an extremely low-budget parody of a film with a clear anti-Islamic message. The outrage in the Islamic world and the multiple deaths, however, were so disproportionate to the quality of the film and its message that Charlie Hebdo made jibes at these Islamic outcasts. In September 2012, they published a series of cartoons, one of which featured Mohamed in a compromising position more suited to Brigitte Bardot.
As far as blasphemies go, at least Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” was extremely funny and clever. Furthermore, it only managed to wind up a few old ladies, living in America’s Bible Belt.
Charlie Hebdo, of course, couldn’t resist “adding fuel to the fire”, according to the then French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. But, once again, under the veil of satire, were elements of truth.
” A STUPID FILM OVER ISLAM SPARKS OUTRAGE AMONGST FUNDAMENTALISTS”
“Show us an intelligent film, and we’ll start WWIII.”
“ARAB WORLD INCENSED BY THE IMAGES OF A FILM ABOUT MOHAMED”
“No, that’s the evening news.”
Do I see you smile? Beware – as from now, your name is on the Islamic blacklist, comprising normal people like you and me, who dare to smile at a joke concerning fundamental Islam.
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. – Pascal
Man not only thinks, he also has the obligation to annoy, by thinking. It is his duty to keep others in check by using constructive opposition. Satirical journals also have the obligation to show us how absurd our actions can be. As long as the critique remains within the boundaries of correctness and not gratuitous, curbing the right to criticize, or systematically taking sides with those who feel offended, only serves to weaken the already fragile freedom of speech that we have. The confines of free speech become more narrow and rigid if we get trapped between apologists and pacifiers, and those who wish to use taking offence as an excuse for violence. In silencing critique, for not wanting to add fuel to the fire, we are giving intolerance the opportunity to light a fire somewhere else.
The only cartoon that can be non-offensive is an empty white box. The only way I can avoid annoying you, is by keeping quiet. Deeming something to be blasphemous – whether it is my ink or my voice – is what is tyrannical.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.