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How Come Free Speech Comes With Responsiblity?

09/01/2015 10:52 GMT | Updated 10/03/2015 09:59 GMT

As you are probably aware, there were some terrible shootings in Paris yesterday, when masked gunmen stormed the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people,including some police officers. The reason given for the killings was offensive comic strips. The last comic was of an Islamic state militant group leader, but may have been published too late to influence the attacks. The picture was carrying on an Islamic theme, however, where the previous picture showed Muslim extremists saying they had not yet attacked France but that they still had time to do so before the end of January. I absolutely agree that the shootings were horrific and should never have happened. No human being has the right to hurt another, unless they are directly trying to kill you, of course. However, I am concerned that state leaders, the press and many others view this purely as an attack on freedom, democracy and freedom of speech.

While I agree that freedom of speech is a very important and highly treasured aspect of our, so-called, democracy, I do not understand why this term is mainly bandied about when the press offend people. Why must freedom of speech mean the right to say whatever we want, about whoever we want? BBC.co.uk explains that the editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane Charbonnier, had lived with death threats and the offices had been destroyed in a fire bomb attack in 2011, the day after the magazine had named the prophet Muhammad as its next editor in chief. Charbonnier told the Associated Press in 2012 that "Muhammad isn't sacred to me". This is my point exactly: Muhammad may not be sacred or important to him, but why does that give him the right to upset others? He felt that a minority of Muslims was making life difficult for others, and so he wished to make life difficult for them.

We must surely use our freedom of speech with some thought and care. Since when is speaking your mind, whatever the consequences, seen as more important than carefully mulling things over, before you speak, having carefully considered the consequences on your fellow human beings? Being able to satirically make fun of and criticise people's contradiction, hypocrisy and inefficiency is an essential aspect of living in a free country, and of holding those in power even slightly accountable. This would be the case with the last Charlie Hebdo comic strip before the attacks. However, why is it important that we are legally allowed to hurt people's feelings because you disagree with their religion, or even, on a more mundane level, because you think they have gained weight and have exposed their cellulite on the beach? Why is free speech valued above decency and empathy? It is very easy to defend free speech when you are not emotionally involved, but if somebody published a cartoon depicting your relative, or your God in what you deemed a disrespectful way, would you defend the cartoonist's right to publish it? While comic strips can be a great way of quickly getting a point across to people who are too busy to read long articles (or who, like me, perhaps prioritise their time differently), they are not suited to serious, in-depth discussions, obviously. They therefore often appear crude and rude, which means they are not really the best medium for religious discussions.

I was partly touched and partly puzzled by the reports of streams of images on Twitter and in the paper, of the words "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie). I understand the knee jerk reaction of showing the gunmen that you cannot kill free speech, and that lots of others also have the right to say what they want to say. But have people really thought about what message they are also passing on, when they write or pass on the "Je suis Charlie" image? What it basically means is, that they too think you should be able to write anything about anybody. Of course you should, but does that mean it is always the right thing to do? If you are exposing hypocrisy and bad management, then yes. If you are merely venting your frustration and anger by offending people's religion, then no. According to www.bbc.co.uk, David Cameron has stated that in a free society, "people have to be free to offend each other." I do agree, but still question why nobody seems to wonder whether offending people is really very nice. While I hope the magazine carries on, I would just like to see more empathy and sensitivity generally in the press, towards everybody.

Most people, in their daily lives, would never dream of telling their friends, acquaintances and relatives every little thought they have about them, and thank goodness for that. Would we like to be told every time our hair looked bad, or whenever we looked fatter or tired? How would we feel if our choices of partner, house, music, children's names, religion were scrutinised and criticised by our loved ones? Would we happily go to bed, thinking how lucky we were to live in a country with free speech? Probably not. Most people only believe in free speech if it does not affect themselves. Some people love giving their opinion, whether it is wanted or not, whenever possible, without much thought for the effect their words have on other people. While it is wonderful that we have free speech, we have a duty to treat each other kindly and to, occasionally, apply an internal filter to avoid unnecessarily hurting people's feelings. I think we all know someone we would like to filter at times, because sometimes, silence is golden. As Dr. PaulTaylor, senior lecturer in culture and communications at Leeds University said on Jeremy Vine's show on 8/1/15: "just because you can say something, doesn't mean you should."

This post was first published in lykkelyons.blogspot.com on 8/1/2015