Here’s an op-ed I’ve published today in EUobserver. I made the unfortunate mistake of sharing it on Facebook, and receiving a bunch of comments whose tone was (how shall I put it?) not exactly in the spirit of the topic. Anyways, here it is – hope it gives you food for thought:
What happened in Paris is much worse than “an assault on free speech”. It’s a red alert.
However great in number, the mainstream reactions to past week’s terrorist attacks could, so far, be boiled down to two narratives. Both start by acknowledging that the freedom of speech and expression has been brutally attacked. Then they diverge along the established paths of European left and right – one stressing the danger of radical Islam, the other warning against the possible surge of islamophobia. The overall focus remains on tolerance towards and within Muslim communities in Europe. Free speech itself is overlooked, and the “assault” that happened is seen as little more than a symbolic attack that merits the strongest symbolic response – a massive rally. In this, we are avoiding a question over which we absolutely need to ponder: namely, what do these terrorist attacks tell us about the state of free speech in Europe?
Many commentators have criticized the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, pointing out that “no, we’re not all Charlie Hebdo”. Sure, they’re right – most of us are biased in our criticism, and our humor is limited by our individual taboos. We don’t all need to be Charlie, as long as we allow a Charlie to exist among us. We can all quietly hiss at the distasteful satirist whose jokes have gone too far, as long as we treasure his tiny, but indispensable role in the liberal-democratic order. And, as such a “flame keeper” of free speech, Charlie is meant to exist on the margin, far from the political mainstream. So, the question to ask is not “why isn’t the mainstream more like Charlie Hebdo”, but – “why wasn’t the mainstream able to protect Charlie Hebdo”?
The Paris attacks should do more than to shock us with their barbarism. This is a chance for the political mainstream to reflect on whether it has lost sight of the values for which the victims stood. This is a moment to realize that the most basic of all our civil liberties – the freedom of speech – is in an alarmingly grave state. That the process of its degradation has been going on for decades. That, throughout this period, free speech has been attacked from all directions, and that the long-term danger of this continuous, systematic suppression of free speech is, as horrid as this may sound, even greater than that of an occasional armed lunatic.
Yes, the blame’s on all sides. Remember the post-9/11 frenzy and the mainstream media’s paranoid expurgation of “unpatriotic” criticism. The Catholic Church has, in recent times, often tried to censor “insulting” content. So did many other bastions of traditionalism. One barely needs to take a look at the Heads of State marching at the Paris rally to spot the immense hypocrisy of these supposed defenders of liberty in Russia, Turkey or Israel. That the freedom of expression has too many exploiters and too few admirers in all spheres of the establishment is not a new thing. But we’d be dishonest if we did not admit that, in the past few decades, the single most effective suppressant of liberty has come from the liberal left, through its obsession with political correctness.
Think of the prohibitive non-legal barriers imposed on those whose opinions are ever so slightly differ from the mainstream orthodoxy: their views are immediately branded as phobic or offensive by hypersensitive cultural minorities. Think of the general atmosphere that’s been created, in which publishers face restrictive pressures to censor a myriad of views that would have been commonplace as much as a decade ago. Think of the unreserved concessions to almost any group that screams disrespect, and the bureaucratic lines about the need to foster tolerance, “while recognizing the limitations of free speech”. Anyone who’s ever tried to publish views that in any way challenge the narrative of political correctness will know this experience – hitting the wall of acceptability, dreading if you’ve asked your question in a bad way, or whether it was bad to ask the question at all. That’s as effective as soft censorship gets.
Look at the growing levels of ideological narrowness in US campuses, or outright political discrimination or in Western academia, where holding conservative views may cost you your job. Recall, for instance, how even the prospect of a campus debate on abortion policy was offensive enough to a feminist student group, that the University administrators were forced to cancel it. Seeing that this happened, of all places, at the University of Oxford, shouldn’t we pay more attention to Alasdair Macintyre’s warnings that the Western public sphere has lost its capacity to have an argument about moral issues?
It’s not hard to see where this increased readiness to compromise our freedom of expression has gotten us – a society terrified of conflict, willing to make ever greater concessions to appease intolerant radicals and avoid unrest. A society that, over the years, prioritized almost any sort of comfort to the comfort of liberty, forgetting that all these blessings are themselves derived from it. Now even the threat of leaking Sony executives’ private emails is enough for a faraway nut to dictate what movies we will and won’t watch.
Does this seem like a society that’s got the spine to stand up for Charlie Hebdo before it is too late? That question has been answered in the bloodiest of ways. Shall we choose to ignore this predicament, hold a massive rally and focus on dealing with radical Islam? Or shall we pull ourselves together and start paying minimal respects to a piece of liberal-democratic heritage for which twelve people have paid with their lives?