“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”
That quote, from George Orwell, is over seventy years old. Yet, given the vivacity with which we continue to debate the importance of free speech, it could very easily have been written today. We live in an age in which writers are harassed for having the wrong opinions. Our world is one where at least seventy countries around the world unduly suppress legitimate news media, and where over fifty journalists were murdered last year alone, simply for doing their jobs.
Keeping very close tabs on the media – and often using violent tactics of oppression – has long been a key feature of undemocratic authoritarian regimes. The desire to control is all-consuming, to the point that dictators want to be able to regulate what people see and say. Recent years, though, have seen something of a boost in intense disrespect directed towards the free press. Hatred of journalists is beginning to escape from the confines of totalitarianism and seep into supposedly liberal societies.
On 7 January 2015, two gunmen stormed the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in an appalling attack that shook the Western world to its core. Terrorism was nothing new, of course; but this was different. In the past, terrorists had always espoused a clear cause. They had always been fighting for a specific ideal of some kind, such as the unification of Ireland.
Brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who killed twelve people and injured eleven others, had no such moral conviction or claim to a higher cause, besides an offensive cartoon. There were, of course, other factors at play: the Kouachi brothers were Islamic extremists and are thought to have been associated with established terrorist organisations.
What marked out this particular incident was that the aggressors did not seek to attack politicians, who might be perceived to have worked against a particular group’s interests or betrayed some political cause or other. Nor did they merely attack the general public in an attempt to spread fear. Their victims were writers and artists. This was a targeted attack on a small group of people who were seen to have made an insensitive joke. The attackers’ grievance was, quite simply, that they did not like something someone had said.
To become so offended after seeing a cartoon on the front of a magazine that you feel the need to commit such a heinous atrocity as this is a thought process that is baffling and terrifying in equal measures; it is this that cuts directly to the heart of the debate around freedom of expression, especially where the media is concerned. There is a small but growing worldview that satirising social phenomena, offering biting and erudite commentary on the world we live in, is an act of hostility that ought to be avenged. It is this view that we must heartily reject on all fronts.
Aristotle said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. That was true in ancient Greek society and it is just as true today. By subtly and implicitly encouraging people to be offended by the things they read and hear, we are slowly but surely fostering a culture of intolerance, in which dissenting voices can be arbitrarily shut down.
What does it mean to be offended by something? The Kouachi brothers were offended by a cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad in the Charlie Hebdo magazine. But there are around 67 million other people in France – including over 5 million Muslims – all of whom managed to refrain from reacting violently, no matter how offended they may have felt.
Charlie Hebdo is a publication that has never shied away from controversy. It is safe to say that thousands, perhaps millions of people have been offended by their savage cartoons and trenchant social commentary at some point in the past. And yet, none had previously thought that an appropriate response would be to murder the cartoonists.
The taking of offence is entirely subjective, so trying to police it in everyday life is not only undesirable but impossible, too. Irrespective of political leanings, all should be concerned that unelected, unaccountable, largely faceless bodies – such as social media companies – now seem to wield such extraordinary power that they are capable of shutting down people’s voices and platforms and extricating them from the international conversation at will.
There is a fine but clear line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable speech. Evidently, it is correct that directly inciting violence and recruiting people to known terrorist organisations is illegal. It is when the consequences are intangible, though, that we ought to draw the line. Since it is impossible to measure or even observe on an objective level the taking of offence, such subjective assertions cannot and should never be allowed to form the basis of law, societal structures or the nature of our social relationships.
The Charlie Hebdo victims may not have been journalists in the traditional sense – for the most part, they were not news reporters – but the awful fate they suffered is emblematic of a wider societal problem that is a real concern for journalists everywhere. Just last month, a journalist was attacked at a Trump rally for no apparent reason. Political discourse has become so fiery and divisive that levels of polarisation and tribalism are skyrocketing. And thanks to the Internet, the aggrieved reader can track down and harass the guilty party more easily than ever before.
What if I say the wrong thing? What if I report on a story in a way that is perceived as unfair or biased? What if I express an opinion that angers a particular group or individual more than I anticipate? The modern Western world contains several of the most prosperous and liberal societies that have ever existed. But can my safety be guaranteed if someone decides that I am guilty of wrongspeak?
This is not a party-political issue. It is not even ideological. Fundamentally, the values of free speech and freedom of the press are ones that we should all be on board with. After all, as Orwell himself said, “it is not possible for any thinking person to live in such a society as our own without wanting to change it.”