By Jakov Miljak
The True Charlie Hebdo tells it how it is: most Charlies would sooner censor others than embrace unpopular opinions.
In the wake of the tragedy that befell Paris on January 7, the gut reaction of many individuals was to proclaim “Je Suis Charlie” as a sign of solidarity with the victims of the horrendous attack. I too, was one of them. Within a day everyone from left-wing university students to George Clooney was exclaiming those three words. Whilst a part of me was happy that it seemed like so many people were standing up for freedom of speech in the wake of such a challenge to western ideals, another part of me was disappointed in the knowledge that most of the people so loudly proclaiming to be Charlie would be more inclined to censor the material Charlie Hebdo published rather than support the legality of its distribution.
In Australia, much of the free speech discussion of late has centred on the proposed and then shelved amendment to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. Looking at the “Je Suis Charlie” platitudes flooding social media, one can only wonder how many of our Charlies would be in favour of the repeal. The Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, noted recently that publications by Charlie Hebdo “would come into contradiction with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and would be censored in Australia.” This indictment on our nation’s failure to protect this core ideal is particularly stinging, as freedom of speech is something on which all progress and liberty depends. It is the accelerant to dissent; it is the catalyst to discussion and ultimately; is the antidote to tyranny.
Following the attack, the western world was offered a choice. It was either going to double down on the principles of free speech and freedom of expression that have served in making the free west what it is or it will pay lip service to the notion and continue using the power of the state to publically enforce a narrative at the expense of the liberty of the polis. It is precisely because the west fostered freedom of speech that the amount of progress we see around us has been achieved, and why other parts of the world that have limited or qualified individual’s ability to speak have lagged behind.
The challenge for people when embracing freedom of speech is that it applies to people who you disagree with. It applies to the ideas which challenge the very foundations of your identity and to things which may offend or insult you. We do not have freedom of speech to talk about the weather; we have it to say controversial things. Whilst Charlie Hebdo published anti Catholic or anti Conservative cartoons that seemed to be, in my mind, extremely bad taste, I understand that they are allowed to do so and that they shouldn’t have to worry about whether hurting my feelings is illegal in order to make their point, as flawed as I may believe it to be. Individuals should be not be intimidated by a free exchange of ideas, and attacks on things that are important to them because they should be comforted in the knowledge that they will have a protected right to return intellectual fire to any attack and ultimately win a battle of idea. The only society where one can do that, is one in which free speech reigns.
The key point to remember when discussing freedom of speech is that one person’s rights do not end when another person’s feelings begin. Compromising the integrity of free speech compromises the very foundation which our liberties are founded on. It confuses me when ethnic minorities seem most keen to keep 18c, when it is precisely to enjoy in those liberties that migrants came to Australia in the first place. Compromising those liberties simply make no sense. I am only glad that it is increasingly becoming clear that censorship and using the power of the state to shut down ideas is nothing more than cowardice and I hope that all segments of the community, of all ethnic and religious origins celebrate the liberties they are granted in this Great Southern Land and recognise that the foundations on which those liberties lie are worth protecting.