There’s nothing quite like free speech absolutists. You can see and hear them exploiting the brutal carnage wrought by jihadists in Paris. Slaughtered Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier should be sainted, they say. Every newspaper around the world should publish the French weekly’s pornographic cartoons of Muhammad and, most notably, without freedom of expression, democracy collapses.
I want to be clear. No one deserves to be killed for whatever it is they express (Joseph Goebbels, the propagandist for the Nazi’s final solution, notwithstanding). But being an equal opportunity bearer of insults (Charlie Hebdo targeted the Pope as often as it did Muhammad), many of them designed to take your breath away, does not, in my view, a hero make. It’s more frat boy behaviour than journalistic integrity.
As for the claim that newspapers aren’t doing their job unless they publish Charlie Hebdo’s offending cartoons, it would be a true travesty if this awful situation influenced media decision-makers to publish anything that doesn’t meet their editorial standards. Editorial policy is not the same as censorship. If editors want to show sensitivity to their readership, I salute them. But I’d even go so far as to say that editors choosing to put the images on their front page are themselves exploiting the situation for profit. Brave? Not necessarily.
The argument that the cartoons are the news story doesn’t really hold. I don’t need to see video of jihadists beheading their captives to know execution is awful any more than I need to see pornographic cartoons of Muhammad to understand why they might offend Muslims.
Will democracy die without free speech? America’s founding fathers thought so, and enshrined that idea in a First Amendment that has become a religion in the U.S. Fortunately, Canada does not share a political culture with the United States. We have hate laws that grasp why speech can be damaging (see Joseph Goebbels, mentioned above), don’t boast a multi-billion-dollar pornography industry that has a toxic effect on women’s social standing and sexuality in general, and have created a civil society that doesn’t consider an abstract idea like free speech more important than developing respect for all its members.
I know that defenders of journalistic freedom are not going to put a bullet through my head. But I don’t want to be pushed around by free speech fanatics any more than by Islamic militants.