Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Jeroen Temperman, 18 februari 2015

The Charlie Hebdo massacre does not pose questions about religion, but about the radicalization of citizens. The massacre does touch upon questions of freedom of expression, but mostly in somewhat indirect ways and in that this right was brutally cut short. The type of satire, criticism of religion, and even defamation of religion practiced by Charlie‘s cartoonists and others is, most definitely, covered by freedom of speech. One may have seen the anti-defamation banners complaining that insulting blacks amounts to racism, insulting Jews amounts to anti-Semitism, while insulting Muslims amounts to freedom of expression, but the racism/anti-Semitism analogy is a false one: ways of life, religious precepts, outlooks on life, may be debated and criticized, while some other human characteristics may not be. Of course, some “contributions” to such debate may appear gratuitously offensive to some—whilst appearing funny to others—but personal insult will always be far too subjective a criterion to base laws or judicial doctrines on.

This is not to say that there are no “duties” to be identified here—there are many, albeit not necessarily all of a legal nature. Call it decency and common sense. First, having a right, like the right to offend, does not mean one must exercise it at all times. Again, if one wants to do so, this should be (legally) possible, and, where contentious, both the speech and the person behind the speech must be firmly protected. Second, those offended have a continuing duty to explain the nature of their grievances. Third, everybody “who is not Charlie” has a duty to reach out to those offended, so as to make sure the latter knows that, indeed, not everybody is Charlie.

The latter two duties are forms of counter-speech. The free market paradigm is still alive; however, it sometimes needs a boost—notably by political, religious, and other leaders—especially where and when counter-speech is shouted down by populism and kneejerk reactions.

Jeroen Temperman, Associate Professor, Erasmus School of Law, Erasmus University Rotterdam.


Originally published by The Immanent Frame.

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