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Then again, sometimes it’s not so safe to say what you want.

For anyone that missed it, yesterday 12 people were murdered while at work in Paris. They weren’t heroes or villains, they weren’t bastions for free speech or hell-bound infidels, they were just people with ideas and opinions, arms and legs like you and I. And now they’re dead. Ten of them were contributors to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Two of them were policemen, one of whom happened to be a Muslim if it matters at all. I watched footage, as many of you did, of one of the policeman, already wounded and pleading in the street. I also watched as one of the perpetrators of this massacre casually walked up and executed him without missing a beat.

To understand why this happened, you’d need to know a wee bit about the magazine itself. Charlie Hebdo has had a long and turbulent history with bad reactions to some of its work. In November 2011, the office was subjected to an arson attack on the eve of publication of their “Sharia edition”, thankfully resulting in no casualties at the time.

Here’s the cover:

It says “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing”. In response to the attack, the Charlie Hebdo staff resolved to never bow to the extremists, to keep publishing their work and not live in fear, taking up (as they saw it) the mantle of Protectors Of Free Speech for France. One of their cartoonists said “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees”. All highly admirable sentiments, at least in theory.

The truth is that Charlie Hebdo’s output was designed entirely to provoke a reaction. The content itself was at best tasteless and at worst not even remotely funny, featuring such highlights as Muhammed being beheaded by a terrorist, Muhammed prostrate and naked being photographed by another man, Jesus sodomising his father, the IRA kidnapping Princess Di’s foetus, that kind of lark. The kind that I actually reckon is more about provocation than cutting satire. It’s not a magazine that was to my taste, and on that much, myself and the three gunmen have something tiny in common. The impression I get from the magazine’s output is that they strove to reach the lowest possible form of humour, wrapped up in a flimsy guise of expressive freedom and defiance of censorship and religious dogma.

They were the moron at the back of the classroom making farting noises.

And yet, there was a threat there. At least, there must have been. Why else would the prophet himself have felt so threatened that he sent his three finest soldiers to bravely don masks and slaughter unarmed civilians? I’m sure their god is proud of them now that they’re ankle-deep in blood.  Not being any kind of expert in theology, I’m still relatively sure there’s a “no killing people” rule in most religions. I’m also relatively certain (and again, open to correction) that the majority of followers of all world religions are more concerned with living their lives and raising their families than joining some sort of perceived crusade of righteousness against non-believers or heretics, be they blasphemy-loving liberals, mad for divorces, abortions, and gay marriage OR ultra-right cartoonists, making fun of people’s deeply-cherished ways of life for cheap gags. It doesn’t matter. Violence is violence is violence, and none of it is ok.

Almost all of the above has been pretty much universally agreed, being as it is simply moral absolutes – cartoons tacky but harmless, gunmen angry assholes, killing bad. Simple. What’s a lot less simple is the impending and ongoing debate around the concept of free speech. I used to be an ardent adherent to the idea that anyone can say anything they want whenever they like, and being offended was simply the offended party’s problem. On reflection though, there are a few simple flaws with the idealised notion we all crave that Freedom Of Speech™ is another of the safe absolutes. Hear me out here.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH DOESN’T EXIST ANYWHERE

No, really. There’s no legal protection for absolute freedom of speech anywhere in the world. After several centuries of anti-semitism, most european democracies have some level of laws against inciting hatred (UK), hate crimes (France), holocaust denial (Germany) and plenty of others. There are things in western society that it is simply impossible to legally say. Charlie Hebdo has in fact in the past dismissed at least one contributor for being openly anti-semitic. Yes, the same Charlie that we all #JeSuised yesterday, the one that likes to show Mohammed as much as possible in as degrading ways as possible, has a problem with anti-semitism. And little old Ireland? Anti-blasphemy laws. Not only do they exist, but here’s me breaking them for a while.

  • Jesus was either the product of sexual assault by flying aliens OR extramarital, casual sex. Probably the latter.
  • God almost certainly doesn’t exist
  • 99% of everything written as religious scripture most certainly didn’t happen
  • Major organised religions, Catholicism in particular, exist only to serve themselves
  • Extremist Islam is fuelled almost entirely by social deprivation, and it’s no coincidence that there are ZERO first-world Islamic states
  • Israel’s very existence is a war crime, and it shouldn’t be where it is
  • Han shot first

I could go on all night, but nothing above is news. However should the Ionas or the ICCs of the world decide to take me to court for any of the above, they’d probably have a case. What I’m saying is offensive to their religion, i.e. blasphemy. Now, the horrendous part is that they can tell me that my pre-marital sex means that both myself, my partner and my son will spend eternity in some sort of subterranean grill is absolutely fine, because the same blasphemy laws that elevate the status of religions in Ireland to “precious untouchable snowflakes” don’t actually protect atheists, agnostics, or humanists. Because you see the law says that religion is more worthy of protection than a lack of religion.

Who said America? First amendment, right? Freedom of speech? Well a couple of pointers there. The first amendment says “say what you want”, the second says “carry a gun”, and the net result is a country where even the children are killing each other. And if anyone’s so convinced that the US supports freedom of speech, ask Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Julian Assange.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS BEING USED TO SILENCE OPPOSITION TO THOSE IN POWER

Know who the greatest experts in freedom of speech are? They’re the religious leaders of the world. The Iona institute, who insist that Una Mullally can’t talk about her new book in a referendum year unless there’s a nun with a ruler nearby, as if the state broadcaster was a teenage disco, making sure that reality and discourse have daylight between them at all times. The same ones that mysteriously have a major problem with pregnant teenagers having access to information about birth control options.

The Westboro Baptist church, who make most of their money from civil liberties lawsuits when someone takes an exception to their “self-expression” at loved ones funerals, maybe having a problem with signs saying “god hates fags”. These people are experts in the first amendment, and know exactly how to push sane people to breaking point in order to sue them into the stone age. But don’t you dare oppress them while they’re trying to oppress you.

The Dr. Selim Alis of our very own country, who in the space of 2 months went from “Ireland needs Sharia schools to cater to my tastes” to “anyone retweeting the Hebdo comics will be sued by the Islamic Cultural centre”. Because religious expression is absolutely fine, and central to freedom of speech….as long as it’s HIS religion.

There’s an old line about the devil citing scripture for his purpose. No greater quantities of masked devils exist than the oppressors of freedom in the name of sky worship invoking their legal rights to freedom of speech. Part of living in a democracy is accepting the opinion you don’t agree with, just don’t forget that these reptiles don’t want to hear yours, and in fact they’d rather you weren’t allowed one. Ask a women’s university in Riyadh, or a Catholic family planning clinic, or an Israeli multi-culturalism centre. Let me know how that goes.

THE RIGHT TO EXPRESSION IS NOT AN IMPERATIVE

I’m for free speech. I’m for freedom in general, and not in a “politician chasing votes” rhetoric sense. I’m absolutely convinced that the world could be reduced to two simple rules (do what you want and don’t hurt anyone else), and if everyone stuck to them we’d all get on grand. Lately though, having had a properly cold look at Charlie Hebdo, I’m starting to wonder if maybe the right to free speech doesn’t need to be tempered with a bit of judgement. Just because I can say whatever I want, doesn’t necessarily mean I should. Charlie asked for it. They didn’t deserve it, but they asked for it. I could spend my Sundays sitting at the back of the nearest church shouting “prove it”, but would that really make a point or would I just be an asshole? Is there any real purpose to non-muslims drawing Mohammed apart from inflaming Muslims? The fact that something is a right doesn’t mean it needs to be exercised constantly. Maybe a bit of judgement, a bit of discretion, a bit of tongue-biting is what separates the moderates from the extremists. Maybe it’s how we show we’re better than the fringes?

It’s the fringes that are the big winners here, of course. No sooner did the flashing news alert marquee wildly across the bottom of the sky news screen than the Farages of the world started biting their tongues and clutching at their erections. The two groups that win big here are the racist right, in their seemingly inexorable rise to power across Europe, and the extremist Islam gang, inspired to take up arms against the filthy blasphemers. The onus is now on us – you and I, and everyone else that can think this through for themselves without listening to tabloids, sermons or xenophobic vote chasers – to hold the centre and not fly to the fringe. This event will serve to further polarize Europe, and history has shown how that game plays out.

As a parting thought : It’s fine if you don’t like anything I’ve said above. In fact, it’s good. It means you were probably paying attention, and maybe I managed to evoke some sort of feeling from you. Tell me how wrong I am. Write a rebuttal. Post on social media about how awful I am. Just don’t come to my workplace and shoot me and my friends, because there’s nothing I or anyone else can say that justifies what’s happened in Paris this week. Nothing.

(originally posted at Blumpkine)

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