Recently, I posted the Charlie Hebdo cover as part of an Amnesty International campaign, in solidarity with the victims of the massacre. At Deerfield, the cover stirred controversy among some in the student body, raising the question of the relationship between free speech and individual feelings of community members who found the image offensive.
Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, and its jokes can make us wince and shake our heads in equal measure to the truths they expose. Its cartoons often go beyond typical satire and contain elements of blasphemy or humor of the lowest common denominator. In fact, even the staunchest supporters of freedom of speech can sometimes be offended by their images.
Yet freedom of speech is at its most valuable precisely when it protects minority views (especially when those views are offensive). This is because, in protecting uncomfortable speech, freedom of speech serves as a pillar of democracy, protecting the voice of minorities as well as the voices of the unsanctioned or unpopular. It is not an accident that at some point, much of the Western literary canon has been on a banned book list somewhere. One thing that elevates all literary masterpieces is their authenticity, and in that authenticity there comes a willingness to offend.
In secular Western democracies, and among leading educational institutions, the tension between freedom of speech and community can be palpable. Yet we must remember, freedom to speak one’s mind is only limited by personal views and willingness, not by public command.
This leads us to the most pertinent question of the expression of personal views and a willingness to express them: as members of a close community, should we restrict our right to speech in recognition of the sensitivity of members of the community? The answer is two-fold. A social tax accompanies whatever action or speech we decide to engage in. Therefore, we must act with an understanding of the precedents we set through either accepting overt external censorship or our own self-censorship.
If we are to restrict the posting of potentially incendiary material, where are the lines in the sand? If a person who follows vegan beliefs, and is very much part of that movement, is deeply offended anytime someone cuts into meat, what do we do to assuage their discomfort with the majority? If a person who follows atheist beliefs, and is very much part of that movement, is deeply offended anytime someone marches to religious dogma, or expresses a view based on what they consider to be superstition, what do we do to avoid offending their sensibilities?
It is easy to see, when we substitute other religious and personal ideologies for the words “vegan” or “atheist,” that we begin down a dangerous road. Whose “feelings” are to be “respected” and whose not? If we begin to discuss this, we may end with oppression from the majority.
It is through sharing the Charlie Hebdo image that we have started a dialogue. If we engage in self-censorship we lose the opportunity to ask ourselves essential questions as well as the opportunity to engage in what is a global discussion. Our community has been enriched by the range of reactions to the image. Most importantly, empathy and respect cannot be taught or learned in the absence of free speech, because then there are neither opportunities to see why empathy and respect are necessary nor opprotunities to learn how to act in real life with empathy and respect.