Please don’t get me wrong. The murderous attacks in France two weeks ago were tragic and horrendous and no philosophy, religious or otherwise, can justify such brutality.
I am also a passionate advocate of free speech and the right to publish, should you chose, material or images which others may find contentious or offensive. I am not trying to be simplistic - I know that this is a complex subject with a whole range of qualifications and legal exceptions. But it is the basis of our democracy and no idea should be above open debate and criticism. And certainly no one deserves to be gunned down for expressing their views.
But just because people have the right to be offensive to others it does not mean that it is right to do so!
I was a teenager in the 60’s when satire was a growth industry. We all clustered round the tele on a Saturday night to watch TW3 hosted by the late David Frost, and we loved its cheeky humour poking fun at the pomposity of our lords and masters. (Do watch this clip all you youngsters who think that your generation has invented “stand-up”, but I warn you there is frequent satirical use of the “N” word).
No subject was beyond their reach be it religion, politics or even medicine and they made some individuals very cross. But I do not remember it every being gratuitously offensive in the sense that Frost and his team set out to be deliberately harmful or destructive to groups or individuals.
I accept that, at times, this can be a fine line and judgement is needed (the job of a good editor eh Mike), but I do not remember TW3 ever crossing it although they may have been close at times.
Private Eye (for which I received a year’s subscription at Christmas) has been exposing and poking fun for years at the shenanigans perpetrated by the not very good and not very great in society. Yet although much is disrespectful it is never destructive.
However the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo had no such qualms and, as their expression of free speech, felt free to be as offensive as they wished – this was their raison d’etre it would appear (a pretty vacuous one it seems to me). But I understand the anger felt by many of my quiet respectable Muslim colleagues. As a Christian I would be happy to debate the tenets of our differing faiths, but I would never wish to be rude or offensive to them.
But this is not my main issue over the whole affair. What has really annoyed me has been the massive hypocritical response of the establishment to the shootings. Millions took to the streets in France to protest. Many of the heads of Europe linked arms in a show of solidarity for the right of freedom of expression. Yet France is a very divided and illiberal nation – just ask the many Jews who are leaving because of increasing anti-Semitism. Not a lot of égalité and fraternité there!
Interestingly the demonstration also included representatives of the Saudi government – that righteous upholder of free speech, and similarly Russia and China whose record on this is not entirely without issue. The Americans were missing although Secretary of State Kerry has made up for the political gaff since then.
But it has been the cant spouted by our own political leaders which has really sickened me, along with most of the liberal elites who dominate the media. They are all passionate, it seems, about freedom of speech, yet this country has seen a sustained attack on free speech, especially if people feel “offended” by any view they disagree with.
For example it is now common for University authorities to ban speakers who hold views which are not deemed politically correct or which may be offensive as the journalist and editor of Spiked, Brendan O’Neill, discovered when he was banned by the authorities of Christ Church, Oxford, from taking part in a debate on abortion (he was pro-choice). However a cohort of feminist students protested about the debate even taking place, and the authorities caved in. O’Neill quotes a number of other similar confrontations.
“In each case, it wasn’t the fact the students disagreed with me that I found alarming — disagreement is great! — it was that they were so plainly shocked that I could have uttered such things, that I had failed to conform to what they assume to be right, that I had sought to contaminate their campuses and their fragile grey matter with offensive ideas,” he wrote in November.
TV presenter Judy Finnigan recently had to apologise after a twitter storm over comments she made on the convicted rapist Ched Evans. “I apologise unreservedly for any offence that I may have caused as a result of the wording I used”. Such “apologies” are becoming increasingly common as people object to being “offended” by any publicly expressed view which is not deemed culturally acceptable, i.e. does not conform to the current establishment or twitter view.
When David Cameron proposed his same-sex marriage bill virtually all public debate on the matter was quashed by the politicians and the chattering classes. Apparently the arguments were so self-evident that no discussion was required, and indeed anyone who took a different view was clearly “phobic” in some way. There are many more similar examples.
Anyone who wishes to participate in public life in any way is now expected to conform to the views of the liberal elite and the twitterati, and heaven help you if you step out of line.
So RIP Charlie cartoonists – you did not deserve your fate. But I am unsure what your drawings have contributed to society.