Ahmed and Francois

Francois runs into Ahmed, an old pal from grad school, at Le Pain Quotidien near their old university.

Ahmed: Terrible, what happened in Paris, no?

Francois: Awful. But, I am not Charlie. What I am, actually, is that I am sick to the pit of my stomach. And, you, you don’t need to feel sorry.

Ahmed: I am not sorry. Just feel like people need to own up to what is done in their name.

Francois: Well, it is not like people have chosen the men who committed the crime as their representatives in some kind of election or referendum. On the other hand, those who invade other countries in the name of defending “freedom” are actually chosen by many. There, in societies who call themselves democratic, responsibility must be taken. But that rarely happens.

Ahmed: That is the beauty of democracy, in principle! Don’t you see? At least, it allows you to own up, and gives you a chance to accept responsibility. In terrorist ideology, no one takes responsibility. Even if terrorists do claim responsibility for their barbaric acts, they do so to take pride in their acts, and not to seek redemption. And that, my friend, goes against the spirit of taking responsibility. Taking responsibility means accepting the immorality of one’s actions, and hence suffering punishment, paying reparations, and even seeking unconditional forgiveness.

Francois: Ahmed, sadly, democracy allows anything but taking responsibility. But, first, can’t you see that your language is already tainting your call to ethics and responsibility. Calling some people “terrorists” already puts them beyond the pale of legitimate human order, and thus allows violence for which no responsibility can be assigned. “Barbarism” is a negative container, a term that artificially collapses the world of too many people, and turns it into some kind of a dark, unfathomable mode of being. There is a crisis of language here, you see—because the language of the ethics is already compromised by the self-righteousness of those claiming to fall in the “camp civilization”. By the way, if responsibility means paying reparations, I wonder if anyone has paid for slavery and colonialism of the past, and for the wars on, and dispossession of, defenseless people in the present.

Ahmed: To create fear and terror among people through acts of violence, especially if it is done in “defense” of, or to spread an ideology, is terrorism and nothing else. It is a belief that terror will change the thinking of people, their way of life.

Francois: In that case, care to explain why firebombing of mosques is seen as criminal, while firebombing of a newspaper is called terrorism? You know the implications of this difference, don’t you? While crime—and I am talking even about organized crime—is tackled by police, “special forces” are called in to “fight terror”, even if those involved are often “lone wolves.” The latter gives an impression that the country is at “war” and there is a civilizational clash going on. The elites and their media state it openly. And people believe it!

Ahmed: I see where you are going with this, but firebombing a newspaper is an attack on a basic democratic right. To be sure, firebombing a mosque is also an attack on the right of a people to follow their own religion, but freedom of expression is key to ensure that people can have the right to follow their own religion. See, if there was no freedom of expression, then those in the majority would have the power to deny Muslims in France the freedom to practice their religion. Denial of certain or any rights always hurts the minorities more. I have no issues if fight against terrorism is described as a “war”. After all, much bigger issues are at stake than when fighting crime. Terrorism is an attack on the identity of the nation itself, on its freedoms.

Francois: I can see you are not saying it is the right to practice religion versus the right to free speech—that they will have to go together. Yet, you are not laying out in actual terms why the right to free speech takes precedence or is more important of the two. Surely, you must notice the difference in the way the violations of the two rights is treated in public debate. We can leave aside, for the moment, the dubious claims surrounding “nation’s identity”. Since when did freedom become the sacred principle of France’s identity? It surely couldn’t have been before the liberation of Algeria or Indo-China, now could it? Unless you are saying, freedom depends on the context in which it must be practiced. Perhaps, not according the freedoms to the colonized was not so French after all.

Ahmed: Well, well, you see, the terrorists are opposed in principle to the French people’s right to free expression, while the French society is not in principle opposed to the right to practice religion of any people…

Francois: (cutting in) Be careful there. Neither of these two statements can stand actual facts. No Muslim, not even the most extreme among them, has ever said they oppose free expression in principle, only that expression that they see as insults to their faith; and the legislation against Muslim women’s right to wear veil has turned some of that old “liberte” wine stale.

Ahmed: Okay, let me reframe it in clearer terms for you. Freedom of expression, which includes the right to offend, is key to democracy. If we are denied the right to offend, then the irrational policies, actions and behavior of those in positions of power will remain unchecked. We can’t fight unreasonable authority with violence, because that would be too easy for the authorities to crush. So satire becomes important. Right to offend is key to test the health of democracy. You should know, Francois, satire is a French thing. There is a history to it. It is part of the identity of the French nation. But some folks can’t take satire too easy. Wonder what annoys them in reality?

Francois: Hold your horses, Ahmed. Too many claims here. First, it is not like the rest of the world lives in some morose, joyless state—even though one could say these are sad times—and only the French know how to appreciate the true value of satire. French satire has a history, because somebody chose to write about that history. All societies have satire of some sort or another, but they don’t go about laying exclusive claims to this form of expression and owning it as their “national tradition”. Not to mention that if you make satire sacred, and are ready to use military means to protect it, then it is a bit hypocritical to launch assaults on the sacred things of other people. Interestingly, you will notice that in history, satire has always sounded best when expressed by the weak. From the mouths of the powerful, mocking the powerless, it is just too gaudy, and not funny. Second, you may have the right to offend, but those who are offended don’t have the duty to tolerate your offensive speech, especially if you insult their revered cultural icons.

Ahmed: But that is intolerance. If you don’t tolerate my offensive speech and I don’t tolerate yours, there will be violence; the social order based on rights will collapse. Is that desirable? Would you be able to live in a society such as that?

Francois: Aha! So behind this concern for right to free expression is the preservation of social order, and prevention of violence. If that is the case, then why allow insulting speech in the first place, when it is likely to disrupt the social order.

Ahmed: Right to free speech is more than a means to an end. There is an inner feature to this right, in that it is a right which is not granted, but something already presumed, something for which no social contract should have to be negotiated… It is an ethical ideal for which no social reality must come in the way. It is an absolute…

Francois: Sorry, Ahmed, but I think we exhaust the plane on which a logical debate can be held when we speak in terms of “absolutes”. Absolute liberalism stops where the nose of the social life begins. We should push for rights as much as we can, but when the horizon is set as the pure absolute, the liberal society starts to mirror its own constructed image of fundamentalism.

Ahmed: So, are you saying social contract puts limits on rights? Don’t those limits need to be questioned if they are unreasonable?

Francois: I don’t think there ever is a “social contract”, not even a notional one. Rights are a result of struggles of the masses. And, that is I guess the main reason such rights need to be protected. But we cannot trust the state, against which struggles had to be waged continuously to concede the rights, to protect those same rights. It is not hard to understand why, in their ostensible defense of the right to free expression—since and before the so-called war on terror—the liberal states have considerably shrunk the space for free expression. From surveillance of the Internet and phone tapping to military courts and torture, the liberal states have done much more to undermine the achievements of the struggles of masses than a few attacks on newspapers by criminals. Is insulting religious beliefs of some for no real reason worth the power we pass on to state authorities—whose power over us emerges essentially from the compromises we make, or are assumed to have made, on our rights?

Ahmed: But… Now, you sound like a defender of free speech.

Francois: I am. But not of the absolutist one, upon which, somehow, the Western civilization is supposed to be based. The question of reasonableness is important. Authority needs to be questioned, and a reckless one must be checked by all means possible. Right to free expression within the sphere of reasonableness, which is not a small sphere indeed, has to be guarded and even fought for. And this is not new. Reasonableness has been the key to sustaining all rights. Even in liberal states, there are so many reasonable (and in some cases even unreasonable) constraints on “free expression” that we are not even conscious of them. Some are simply called “manners”, “good taste”, or “politeness.”

Ahmed: Who decides what is reasonable? What is reasonable to one is not reasonable to others.

Francois: It is indeed an ambiguous zone. But tell me frankly, those who seek to test their right to free expression by offending others, don’t they know all too well what an insult is? You don’t test your freedom of assembly by barging into someone’s living room. The provocateurs clearly know they are provoking a reaction, not from the all too powerful state, or even the dominating majority, but from a racialized, oppressed minority. And, and, it is no worthy argument that since, in our societies, we can now—after many centuries—make fun of Jesus and the pope, we should make crude fun of other people’s sacred figures too. There is a question of non-equivalence: what is sacred to you may not be sacred to others. Insulting speech can damage a person. It is recognized in law; you can sue for libel, right? Insulting speech can fundamentally screw up the symbolic system of a group. For another people, such speech may not have the same effect, because their symbolic system is undergirded by a different set of public figures, texts, or forms. In most places you can’t insult dead soldiers, or burn a country’s flag, or give a call to arms against a government.

Ahmed: I am not saying “insulting speech” has to be respected, but there is no justification for killing a person for what they say, or to even prevent them from saying whatever they want.

Francois: Indeed. That is true, beyond doubt. Remember, I am not defending the actions of those who shot the Charlie Hedbo cartoonists. But I find no reason to defend the actions of cartoonists either. I am not giving my life to defend their right to offend. To be offensive and insulting is a privilege of the powerful, like racism is the privilege of some over others. It is not a legitimate right won through struggle, but an illegitimate privilege bought through power and money—and in this case, by aligning with the anti-immigrant agenda of the European fascist parties. And, we know, rights of all are expanded when privileges of the few shrink.

Ahmed: Well, that last theory will need to be proved first. Whatever, what this means is that Muslims in France will suffer more. It is community “honor” at the cost of economic benefits that will accrue from a fuller national integration.

Francois: Now you are proving my point. In our thoughtless defense of the privileges of some to insult oppressed minorities, it is the minorities whose ability to enjoy rights shrinks.

Ahmed: But… But why should a Claude from a newspaper care if his words or cartoons appear as cultural insults to others?

Francois: Well, you are assuming the intent is not to insult, but that is rarely the case these days. The intention is often to provoke anger through insult. That is why racist cartoons continuously appear in newspapers, as public speech. And public speech is already political and not a private thing. I am sure people can question Holocaust in their inner, private lives, but raising doubts publicly is heavily censured. Quite rightly. It is sad that racists have become “defenders” of free speech. They want the society to protect their right to publicly spread hate, and you know hatred in public discourse isn’t without actual consequences. Hateful speech is the main facilitator of violence, even though there are questions of social and economic domination behind violence. I won’t give my life for someone’s right to spread hate.

Ahmed: But aren’t Muslims just too sensitive? Others are also ridiculed, they don’t respond with acts of violence.

Francois: First, most, an overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t respond with violence, even though they don’t quite get why some non-Muslims would find it amusing to insult Muslim religious icons. Second, there is already so much hate literature against Muslims out there—you just have to see how much scary literature is publicly available that calls for “culling” Muslims, that calls for genocide, which is not only not proscribed, but actually publicly encouraged. Third, Islamophobia in speech informs the attitude of the state and the society toward Muslim minorities, with actual consequences on their livelihoods and their security. Fourth, Muslims are baffled why their religion is specifically a subject of ridicule of this magnitude. They see there are other reasons than just the West testing its right of free expression. Nevertheless, everyone is sensitive to insults. Some have power of censorship, and they are able to use different means to stop hate literature, or even any literature for that matter. And, they do use those means, quite often.

Ahmed: Do you want a baguette with your soup?

Francois: No, I will have cous cous today.


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