Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Taking offence

The debate about free speech following the Charlie Hebdo murders has followed a now familiar rights vs obligations narrative.  "Yes, of course people have the right to express themselves but is it wise for them to do so?"   I don't find the 'of course' in some people's usage entirely convincing but I've been wondering if the question might be posed in a different way: is it either possible or desirable to have a legal framework that protects people from offence, and specifically from that sense of hurt derived from others desecrating what they hold to be sacred?  The answer is no, for two reasons:

1) Taking offence is a far too subjective experience to be worked into any rational legal system.  Some found Charlie Hebdo's cartoons deeply offensive whereas I have found the fact that some people couldn't even wait for the artists to be buried before they smeared them as racists obscene.  I don't want to do a sermon about this.  Peter Ryley summed up what I think as well as anyone.  France has a long tradition of leftwing politics with a strong anticlerical strand.  It was in this tradition Charlie Hebdo stood.  We just don't have that in Britain - and boy doesn't it show? 

2) A legal fence can't be built to protect what others consider sacred because that enclosure would be so wide as to suffocate free thought.  Do we really need to demonstrate this?  It's not just about cartoons, or, as others have pointed out, any representation of Mohammed but whole fields of intellectual enquiry.  I was glad Nick Cohen mentioned the dearth of form criticism in Koranic studies in his article at the weekend because it's a point that should be made more often.  Form criticism is basically lit crit techniques applied to the Bible, an field of theological study pioneered - like so many - in Germany.  Wikipedia will inform you that this technique is 'in its infancy' when it comes to the field of Koranic studies.  It is in its infancy because it is extremely dangerous, as Professor Nasr Abu Zaid discovered to his cost.

Whipping out the inverted commas to put round free-speech doesn't make closing down fields of intellectual enquiry, whether it be academic research, writing books or drawing cartoons anything other than intolerable.  And neither do the charges of hypocrisy, as if those of us appalled at this atrocity are in some way supportive of the various restrictions imposed by the governments represented at the Paris march.  The obvious solution to the hypocrisy of the uneven application of free expression is to have more of it, not less.  Anyway, what is hypocrisy but the tribute vice feels obliged to pay to virtue?   Perhaps we should fear more if our corrupt rulers didn't even feel the need to do this?

Finally, there's the question of whether seeing the origin of all this in the audacity of free speech does justice to the situation.  As well as the attack on Charlie Hebdo there was the assault on the kosher supermarket.  God preserve us from anyone attempting to discern what offence the victims had caused since it should be plain it was their very existence.  I'm not going to ask the rhetorical question, what does it take for people to realise what they are being confronted with?  The answer is something other than a fascist gang with automatic weapons killing unarmed journalists and Jews, obviously - and that is deeply depressing.

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