This post came out of a sense I developed over the past two days that freedom, liberty, and equality are all perfected in their limits, rather than their excesses. This is the foundation of the teachings of Jesus Christ; that in love of God and man, and in practicing that love of God and man, we all have chosen to put aside what divides us in favor of what unites us.
After the horrible shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris – leaving twelve dead, and eleven wounded – the politicians and journalists of the western nations all professed a unified theme of freedom of speech; the right to say what you want, when you want to say it, without the fear of a reprisal that would cause some form of immediate harm to the person exercising such a freedom. I had thought I could stop defining freedom of speech with just those three words, “freedom-of-speech”, but I immediately realized that there is no such thing as freedom of speech without the accompanied and reactionary or complimentary thinking and action that results from the observers of such a freedom.
I had to struggle a little with that part of my definition of freedom of speech that recognizes that all actions invariably induce reactions. Surely, any one speaking understands that their words will illicit reactions that might well effect their own condition. Is that not the purpose of speech? To what degree are any reactions to speech permissible under the banner of freedom? If an observer holds his nose and walks away, we all consider that a permissible action (though it appears to be in declining numbers as intolerance rises). If an observer pulls out a gun and begins shooting, well that’s considered by most to not be permissible.
It’s important to note here that freedom of speech is intentionally an action of communication. A person exercising freedom of speech is an instigator or initiator of an act of speech or communication. Freedom of speech is for the benefit of the one speaking; the idea being that what one speaks contains a need or desire that, if successfully transmitted to other individuals, will be fulfilled by those in observation.
When a car company runs an advertisement in a newspaper, it does so with the actual, physical need and emotional desire to sell their cars to the greater society so the participants within the company might enjoy the opportunities of life. This is freedom of speech.
When a child walks into a room where its parents are sitting and proclaims it is hungry, it is practicing freedom of speech. The child perceived its hunger – its need and desire – and it used the freedom of speech to promote the satiation of that hunger.
When a minority walks out a protest in a city to bring to light certain injustices, that minority is practicing the freedom of speech. It perceived an injustice – an inequity or limitation of opportunity – and thus employed the freedom of speech in order to procure the equity or opportunity as others enjoy. That minority group had a need or desire for an equity and/or opportunity.
In the case of the French weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, its editorial staff sensed a strong need or desire to eliminate religion as a cultural affluence, and so it used the practice of freedom of speech to procure its need or desire.
Freedom of speech is meant to effect the thoughts, the perceptions, the ideas, the concerns, the desires, and the passions of an individual or larger group, and thus meant to cause or illicit actions that fulfill the need or desire that drives the act of freedom of speech. In its most benign form it is informational; with little, measureable consequence as the need or desire is already prevalent and in alignment with societal norms. In its most aggressive form it is disinformation, or intentional misinformation; meant to create a measureable and calculated response – for or against – to a widely-held societal norm. It is a tool. It is a weapon.
For those colonials who sought out America so they might establish a form of governing in line with their concepts of freedom, liberty, and equality, decrying the restraints and taxations of mother England was valid and necessary speech. For those colonials who found comfort and gain in America’s status under England’s rule, those same words spoken in the town square were inflammatory and illegal. Both sides of the argument had valid claims to the loss of opportunity to a fruitful life to the degree that any outcome of America’s sovereignty would cause themselves and their families harm.
From this observation, I might conclude that freedom of speech frequently works against the very goal that it seeks; the freedom from constraint by the limitations of those who impose any authority upon the lives of others. While it brings the fruition of opportunity to one, it so denies that same opportunity to the other. Most occurrences of freedom of speech deal with such conditions, and any resultant harm or loss is justified through the process of democracy or rule by the majority. We recognize that debate yields winners and losers, and so a good society attempts to practice those processes of social services and governmental laws that hope to diminish the harmful effects upon the losers of social debate and outcome.
However, I make this conclusion based upon the current reality that freedom of speech incorporates within it, within western world concepts, the characteristic or property that freedom of speech should have no regard for ethics and the concept of the dignity of all men and women. This idea has become a sacred cow within the past one-hundred years, with its greatest acceleration in the last twenty years, and I was frankly shocked at the automatic and absolutist proclamation of this concept by both left and right wing protagonists in the political and journalistic worlds as the Charlie Hebdo tragedy was discussed.
This is the western world perception of freedom of speech; the freedom to say what one desires despite the loss of ethics, or those characteristics of a society that promote the dignity and commonality of its citizens. Freedom of speech – through its disregard for ethics and the dignity of men and women everywhere – becomes a weapon that authorizes an individual or group to seek power through the circumvention of the normal process of building one’s argument for a need or a desire upon logical, historically correct, and fully-exposed information and rational. Satire is one such method of circumvention, and Charlie Hebdo, understood this fact when they used it.
By today’s standards, satire is defined as the ridicule of another’s beliefs or practice. Satire, in any form, is an action of contempt for another individual or group. It is misinformation, as it is designed to prevent a fair analysis of a discussed condition. As such, anyone choosing satire has elected to manipulate one of the more aggressive forms of the freedom of speech; one that intends to circumvent the process of ethics for the process of power.
The idea that one should be able to say what they want to say, when they want to say it, is a cherished public value whose roots go deep into the history of man and his society. Its value lies in the concept of freedom and liberty and equality, where all men and women enjoy the same opportunities of life, and thus recognizing and codifying the unique character of each individual, as well as the commonality of mankind. It is not meant to be any affirmation of equal provision regardless of an individual’s character and condition, but rather simply the opportunity of life unencumbered by conditions that would limit such opportunities to gain what is right and good for an individual. Freedom of speech is one of those values of western society that is meant to promote and maintain that opportunistic environment. By not dictating or limiting what is permissible to be said, nor when one might say it, there is the hope that such diverse randomness will promote a balanced conclusion of freedom, liberty, and equality. In truth, however, it is a balance unachievable when basic ethics and the dignity of men and women are ignored in favor of ideology.
Ideology always examines the condition of mankind through its own carefully chosen filters; labeling, choosing, disregarding, and condemning according to the ideology and not to any reality. The truth is that there can be no distillation of mankind at any point, at any time, to any specific ideology. Ideology cannot take into consideration the reality that different belief systems and practices are rooted in profoundly well-intended, generational, ethical, and dignified values (yes, and with their immense flaws). Ideology requires the demonization of opposing or contrary beliefs and practices so as to circumvent the process of the recognition of human dignity. In other words, it’s a lot harder to withhold food, a bed to sleep in, a roof over one’s head, clothes on one’s body, and other social services from a friend than an enemy. What many ideologues perceive as an immediate need is simply the excuse to deny another their human dignity for the sake of self-expediency.
It is no different whether one is drawing a satirical cartoon ridiculing one’s faith, or removing their head from their torso out on the sands of Iraq. Both deny man his inalienable dignity. The truth of the matter is that too many people have the relativistic concept firmly in mind that conditions “in change” need to change at a pace that suits their need for power. Freedom of speech is, above all else, for the benefit of the speaker, and while its roots run deep in social democracy, its prime root is to serve the self.
During one of the many discussions I listened to after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, I was relieved to find a few journalists who actually broached the subject of ethics in modern communications. It went something like this.
Responsible journalism always seeks to assess and report on the important issues of a particular social condition or event. If journalism is to have any positive participation in society, it can only do so through the thorough and fair rendering of human opinion, belief, and practice. Ideology has no place in journalism other than to be a subject matter of journalism. Journalism cannot forego this thorough and fair rendering for the sake of expediency or deadline, and it certainly cannot accept the degradation of human dignity and ethics as a means to a nobler end. Responsible journalism simply has no reason to look to devices such as satire as it offers nothing that defines man in a dignified manner.
There is no good cause of mankind – no purpose of well-being for humanity – where the degradation of an individual or group could ever be the ethical means to achieving the virtuous end to an ignoble vice. What can be said with satire, can be better said with civility. What can be said with hatred, can be better said with grace. What can be said in falsehood and insinuation, can be better said with honesty and honor. Whether it be politics or journalism, any attempt to separate the social dignity of the human condition away from the needs of the society will only bring about the destruction of the society, and it is only through the habituated practice of virtue in society that mankind enjoys anything other than chaos and extinction.
The editors of Charlie Hebdo enjoyed the freedom of speech on their terms. No doubt, they felt a great compassion to reject religion as a human source of good. That appears to be undeniable. I have to wonder though, if Charlie Hebdo had pursued a form of journalism that chose to take the long walk through tolerance, charity, veracity, and equity, would those who died tragically on January 7, 2015, still be alive today, and would their long walk be any less than the one they chose to take instead? Is there ever a reason for vice to replace virtue?
God Bless – Reese