Reconciling freedom of speech with our other core values

During the days following the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office, social media has been filled with users rallying their support for freedom of speech, condemning the attack and standing with those affected.

And quite rightly so.

It goes without saying that no-one should be killed for drawing a cartoon. Or writing a book, or having an opinion. But it is necessary to question whether we, in our quest to defend ‘freedom of speech’ are ready to discount anything that stands in our way.

What will stem from this event will be an ongoing debate about freedom of speech, a concept that we all like to think that we adhere to. I personally would say that I think of myself as a firm defender of freedom of expression, but I’ve begun to question where we draw the line. Is there even a line to be drawn? Or does freedom of expression trump everything, social harmony included? Some would argue that ‘drawing a line’ completely goes against the concept of freedom of speech; by ‘drawing a line’ you are essentially limiting what can be said, thereby completely negating the entire concept.

But that’s not what I’m proposing.

What I am saying is that realistically, if we are striving for a society with mutual respect and tolerance of everybody, irrespective of race, gender or religion, then the fact of the matter is, we are going to have to start respecting each other’s beliefs. Showing tolerance for other people in no way restricts your freedom of speech. Should you have a difference of opinion, the correct way to approach the issue is through discussion, through dialogue. Not through the crude images produced by Charlie Hebdo, and certainly not through shooting innocent people.

It seems that freedom of expression is one of our most cherished values. And justifiably so. But having said this, when did other values suddenly become less important? Values like tolerance? Respect? Unity? These morals seem to have taken a backseat as we strive for our right to express ourselves freely, but we really don’t need to choose between the two. Because the reality is, you could quite easily express yourself whilst exercising respect for other people. I could quite easily draw a crude cartoon to convey my issues with, say, the BNP. But when did articulating your issues in a respectful way stop being the norm? While I can honestly say it was the right of those satirists to publish whatever they wanted, irrespective of how many people were offended, I cannot say that I agree with what they did. Yes, people should be able to say whatever they want. But we need appreciate that there is a difference between ‘Freedom of Speech’ and deliberately setting out to offend.

Now I am not for a minute condoning the murder of the satirists. It goes without saying that no-one should be killed for expressing themselves, as I said before. There is no doubt that freedom of speech is a value worth striving for, and I am in no way suggesting that we should limit what people can say. I am simply proposing that before any of us pick up a pen to put across a point in a crude and offensive manner, maybe we could consider how we can express our opinions without being insensitive and antagonistic, and maybe then we can have a society where we all equally respect one another.