12 September 2012

Are there limits to freedom of expression?

The debate is raging. The "movie" trailer turning the prophet Mohammed into ridicule? I'll get back to it after mentioning another "Muslim" scandal.

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A few days before yesterday's incident, a French writer, Richard Millet, was pilloried (symbolically, mind you) for apparently (since I haven't read his book, Eloge littéraire d'Anders Breivik) claiming that the decline of today's literature and European (Christian) values in general are due to the rise of immigration, in particular Muslim, in Europe... thus somehow defending the absurd theories upheld by last year's Norwegian killer Breivik. Followed multiple articles in mainstream media "condemning" Millet's book and Millet himself, expressing consternation and dismay at the writer's provocative praise of disturbing or even "fascist" theories. What a deluge did we get (just in Le Monde: http://goo.gl/6ZXBv, http://goo.gl/7XcGp, http://goo.gl/mmdnB, http://goo.gl/bmCZd; here in English: http://goo.gl/7R1iq).

The debate is to me laughable. Of course the right-wing, Christian, nebulous theories of Millet, if this is what is indeed in his book, aren't particular appealing, to say the least. But that's not the point: it seems every French "intellectual" and politician had to say something against him. True, it's always the dilemma between staying quiet so there's less promotion of unsettling – or crazy – ideas, and standing up to counter-argue (would we then stand up when it really matters?). However, and French people love to debate, was it really necessary for all intellectuals to make such a fuss out of it?

Anyway, I'm fine either way as long as all sides are free to express themselves, including if it's to express the worst things. I do understand people can be shocked by words, images and sounds (although for this, they'd have to actually have watched those...). It's therefore not particularly smart for anyone to stir up unnecessary controversy on a topic that is known to generate such reactions – Millet must be laughing for having succeeded in making everyone talk about him, when most likely nobody read his book.

However, it's not because it's not smart that it should be condemned, in my opinion, or, worse, made illegal. In fact, I find unacceptable the US embassy's press release, in particular this sentence: "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Isn't there an inherent contradiction in juxtaposing the word "actions" with "free speech", which, by definition, is not an action, but a non-physical expression of one's opinion? What's more, how can there be free speech if it's restricted to "not hurting" the feelings and beliefs (not just religious) of people? Many opinions are bound to offend specific communities or just random people (not even necessarily part of "communities"). Of course, religious or anti-religious ones can "hurt" even more – hence my point about not being very smart, especially in the current context of irrational fear on one side and simplistic depiction of "the West" on the other.

I believe the whole point of free speech is to be able to provoke, and to use it wisely but not be blocked by any legislation (in particular if it doesn't seem to be used "wisely"). There could even be a simple reason for this: I challenge anyone to define accurately where the "right" limit exists (in fact, to be extreme, nothing prevents me from creating a religion, and purposefully define what would offend me in someone else's speech). The best way to answer is either to ignore or to answer with one's own free speech, with clear arguments and explain why the other side is wrong.

Hate speech can lead to negative or deadly (physical) actions? Sure enough, although it still amazes me why one particular abominable extermination is put on a pedestal – the Holocaust, an undeniable historical fact (but denying it is an offence in France) – when other atrocities happened since everywhere on the planet (is there something as a benchmark in levels of atrocities?): laws in that case appear quite ephemeral (will it make sense to have the same law in 200 years?) and particularly subject to the mood of the times, when they are not already dealing with the difficulty to define proper rules and definitions (read a previous post of mine on double standards). So please explain to me how, by banning it, one can prevent so-called hate speech from going underground, making it more difficult to combat, in particular with the Internet (which I don't want to be restricted, at least not by governmental bodies)? As I expected with today's murder of the US ambassador in Libya, some comments on the corresponding NYT article, and most likely elsewhere too, react by putting the blame on the film directors, not mentioning anything about the actual perpetrators of the murders. Unbelievable.

Bottom line: how can someone criticise without investigating and (critically) thinking (it's a pleonasm)? In fact, I'm not perfect myself: I had only read excerpts of the Quran in various books presenting religions. But nothing replaces one's own investigation, especially when one enters a debate. So, last year, I read the Quran entirely, slowly, with an open mind, bit by bit. I could then decide for myself, and at least better understand the variations of interpretation.

On the video that seems to anger a number of people (which I can understand, but not to the point of reacting violently), I wouldn't have looked for it if I hadn't heard the news: it was so bad that I had to stop watching it after a few minutes, the video completely falling flat on any point the film director was trying to make. The shame in "artistic" performance is really upon them. And it was indeed really stupid of them to provoke (after all, one could probably make fun of transubstantiation, or be quite shocked or upset by Leviticus 24:13-16) – but I'll never deny anyone's freedom of speech, even if they hurt my feelings or my own beliefs; or someone else's for that matter. Peace.