The slaughter of the cartoonists and staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists last month forced us to define precisely what we mean by “freedom of speech.” This was long overdue, and judging by some of the attempts made in the weeks after the murders, it would seem we have a long way to go.
As everyone must be aware by now, Charlie Hebdo specialized in an aggressively irreverent humour that attacked social, political, and religious sacred cows with a kind of angry, even puerile relish that has no real parallel on newsstands here in North America. Their specialty was a crude pamphleteering that disappeared from mainstream discourse in the English-speaking world during the Victorian era and went underground, finding a home in subculture newspapers and magazines and, lately, on the internet, where it’s usually authored anonymously.
As was often pointed out, Charlie Hebdo only came around to targeting Islam recently, after decades of mostly attacking the Catholic Church. In an opinion piece for The Week, French writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recalled that, growing up in a devout Catholic family (something that makes him a minority in modern Europe), the magazine “represented everything that went wrong with the country: vulgar, often for the sake of being vulgar, disrespectful of all authority, of no redeeming artistic or cultural value. The Charlie Hebdo staff and I had diametrically opposed views on religion, philosophy, politics, economics – you name it.”
And yet Gobry said that he, like many fellow French Catholics, had come to accept and defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend. “Right after the attack, André Cardinal Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris, sent a message of dismay and support for Charlie Hebdo’s right to mock his faith. A century ago, the cardinal’s predecessor would undoubtedly have thought that Charlie Hebdo should be shut down as a measure of public safety. And a few centuries before that, his predecessor might have put Charb or Cabu (two of the paper’s cartoonists who died in the attack) on the rack.”
Not all Catholics apparently felt this way. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League issued a statement on the day of the attacks saying, essentially, that the artists and staff of the magazine had provoked the attack: “What unites Muslims in their anger against Charlie Hebdo is the vulgar manner in which Muhammad has been portrayed. What they object to is being intentionally insulted over the course of many years. On this aspect, I am in total agreement with them.”
Barely two weeks after Donohue’s comments sparked a round of condemnation, no less an authority than Pope Francis made remarks during a visit to the Philippines that seemed to echo Donohue’s position. “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said, after prefacing this by stating that “one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God.”
I am used to ignoring the proclamations of Bill Donohue since, in my opinion, he speaks for no one but himself, but as a Catholic, remarks made by the Holy Father, even offhandedly, aren’t to be taken lightly. Which is why I have to admit that they left me worried and disappointed.
Misinterpreting statements made by Pope Francis has become a habit of the media these days – a habit not helped by his insistence on offering up his opinions on any number of timely subjects without the (sometimes ponderous) gravity that his predecessor took care to present. So I tried to hunt for context and qualification in his words, but found to my dismay that there was very little.
Saying that you “cannot provoke” just a few breaths after you state that you also “cannot offend, make war (or) kill in the … name of God” seems quite unequivocal, especially within its context. And while I know that this statement was made with the best of intentions, it also seems full of a dangerous naiveté unbecoming of a man who must know that he stands at the head of an institution that has been diminished or even prohibited in less free societies, and whose adherents are under violent assault right now in parts of the world that are very far from free.
It was a statement that argued for religious belief having precedent over the irreligious, and which seemed to imagine a state of civic affairs that we in the West haven’t lived in for decades, if not centuries. For better or worse, Christian ideals have to defend themselves in both the secular West and an even more hostile theocratic East, where their opponents frequently argue that what Christians say, think, and do are deeply offensive and even profane.
As my friend and colleague Michael Coren said in a clearly pained Toronto Sun column, “the whole point about free speech is that it only defines itself when it does offend. Bland comment doesn’t have to be protected but the provocative and profane does.”
For a very vocal minority in the world today, both atheist and religiously devout, the very existence of a Pope or the Catholic Church is often described as offensive. I’m surprised that the Holy Father would argue for a state of affairs that would give their sensibilities undeserved and dangerous privilege.
To bring this closer to home, imagine a world where expressing pro-life opinions was considered offensive. We don’t have to try very hard since it’s effectively the one we live in now. In a country with no effective legislation on abortion, the leader of a party that will likely either be the Official Opposition or governing party, has said that pro-life votes have no place in his party’s caucus. And in the party currently holding power, any attempt to propose legislation on abortion is a fringe act, doomed to flounder in parliament without that party’s support.
In this environment I can’t imagine why anyone, never mind Pope Francis, would want to give precedent to those who would call their right not to be offended a trump card that silences opposition. A world where one “cannot offend” quickly becomes one where you cannot defend, especially against those quick to use either melodrama or murder as proof that their God is offended.