“I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it”- Voltaire.
This remark by Voltaire aptly encompasses the idea of “free speech” in the 21st century. It also happened to be the first thing that crossed my mind as I recently listened to a very insightful lecture regarding media and the Charlie Hebdo shooting that occurred two years ago. Charlie Hebdo is the name of a famous satirical newspaper often known to attract controversy. It satirizes extremists, religions such as Islam and Judaism, political figures and culture through jokes, comic strips, and short articles. A few of the staff members, including the editor in chief, had been attacked in the newspaper headquarters by two Islamic men claiming that the newspaper had published blasphemy by using human pictures of the Mohammed. When I first heard of this, I realized that my instinctive reaction was to be disgusted by the audacity that the men had to take lives away simply because people voiced their opinions. However, as the course of the lecture continued, I started becoming more open minded (but still not open minded enough to justify murder).
I have always had a strong belief that individual expression is the prime stimulus propelling our generation into progress and new inventions. In my environment, individual expression is not only a right but a need for society. It gives us multiple perspectives that allow us to view different situations in different lights. Without this, we would all be conforming to one rule and one ideology. In a multicultural society like ours, controlling freedom of speech would be inhibiting opinions, creativity and ideas, ideas that could make each new generation heroic than the last. Furthermore, individual expression does not have to be restricted to oneself. It could also be an expression that is the sum of the opinions of many people. That being said, I also believe that along with creativity and different opinions, conformity, to an extent, is indispensable. Without having conformity, we would be in a chaotic world, following haywire laws, in a disharmonious society. There would be no common wavelength for us to build our lives upon. The very fabric of society would be stitched with cloth so different that creating a whole piece would be unthinkable.
With my ideals in mind, I began thinking, “How far is too far?”. While freedom of speech is the core of living in a democratic country, we do need to protect it with laws for defamation to keep from offending others. But how are we ever supposed to say or do anything that will not hurt the sentiments of some person somewhere? After all, a debate always has the proposition and the opposition. To every idea, there will always be a viewpoint that criticizes or opposes it.
In my opinion, in the shooting of Charlie Hebdo, it wasn't only the newspaper that was exercising its freedom of speech. It was also the men who committed the murder. Charlie Hebdo’s individual expression was criticizing the religions that HE thought were ridiculous. He expressed this in the form of creativity; words, pictures, and jokes. That was his attempt to let creativity change society. On the other hand, the attackers' view that anything against Islamic laws is “blasphemy”, was expressed through murder.
Therefore, I believe that the extent to which individual expression is permissible is not determined by limit, but rather by form. As long as individual expression is let out in the form of creativity, words and sincere opinion to change society, it should be encouraged, as that is the kind of thing that allows society to flow and change into the best possible way. However, the second it disrespects someone else’s right to have a different opinion or it physically hinders them from their attempt to express their thoughts, it is not permissible. Our individual expression is just our actions instigated by certain opinions and view points. However, the form through which we choose to express this action is of the utmost importance. The attackers and the Charlie Hebdo editors both had viewpoints, but Charlie Hebdo used a pen but the killers used a sword.