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Free speech and the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

By Trisha Jha - posted Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The debate about reform of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has bubbled up again in the wake of the slaughter at the office of Charlie Hebdo, and has been met with predictable outrage over political point-scoring from opponents of reform who argue the debate should be considered an 'ex-debate'.

For what it's worth, I agree. The debate on reforming - or better yet, repealing - 18C should have never been closed in the first place.

It is a strange defence of freedom of expression that simultaneously condemns the killing of people for drawing cartoons and, implicitly affirms that Australian law should nevertheless have a chilling effect on those who might produce similar words or images.


Underpinning the exhortation to restrict free speech are the ideas that free speech is a zero-sum game where the 'loser' is almost always a minority community, that minorities gain little from freedom of expression, and that minorities do not lose much from restrictions on speech. Both history and the present day suggest that this is not the case.

The reality is that, across the globe, people fight for liberal democratic ideals and free speech in particular. Just last week, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes for calling himself a liberal. Anti-blasphemy laws - part of India's strange tradition of secularism - undermine free expression in that country in the name of unity and social cohesion. The Muslim Middle East is full of satirists and humourists who daringly poke fun at their governments and their societies, often skating the edge of the law in doing so.

One cannot argue both for liberal values like pluralism and tolerance abroad, and have a 'yes, but…' qualifier attached when it comes to our own society. Free expression, as an ideal worth fighting for, is no less important in the Western world, and the same conviction which defends it abroad should defend it here.

The solidarity expressed in #JeSuisCharlie was complemented by #JeSuisAhmed, in honour of the French Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet who was gunned down outside the Charlie Hebdo office. The Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, alsoused rather colourful language when defending the centrality of a free press to Dutch society. In our society, minorities of all stripes - Muslims included - can and do defend liberal democratic values, and this includes the right to free expression.

The myth that minority communities do not have the same stake in preserving liberal democratic freedoms favours both the extreme left and right. For the left, it means there is a group of people disenfranchised by the vicissitudes of capitalism who need to be rescued. For the right, it means an opportunity to cast doubt on the nature of our society on the basis that some groups of people will never really fit into Western society. Both of these notions rob people of individuality and moral agency.

While it's obvious that some speech does offend and hurt particular minority communities, it does not follow that restrictions on speech are therefore necessary. Free speech is just as important to minority communities as it is to society as a whole. British author Kenan Malik argued in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre that "once we give up on the right to offend in the name of 'tolerance' or 'respect', we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice."


It is also patronising to suggest that members of minority communities are somehow less capable of making the judgement that whatever sensibilities may be protected by legal restrictions on speech, the benefits pale in comparison to the damage that would be done to society as a whole.

Jonathan Rauch wrote "the open society is sometimes a cross we bear, but it is also a sword we wield, and we are defenceless without it." He was writing specifically about the gay and lesbian community, but it's a lesson we could all bear to learn.

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About the Author

Trisha Jha is a researcher with the Centre for Independent Studies in the Social Foundations program.

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All articles by Trisha Jha

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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