Freedom of expression means freedom to disapprove

The Charlie Hebdo massacre is deeply depressing for so many reasons. The dead, of course. The attack on our society’s values. But in this post I want to drill down a little and look at how this attack, and the reactions to it, affect our freedom of expression in more ways than the obvious.

This atrocity will change the way people take decisions about publishing offensive material. Some will say “publish and be damned, I stand up for freedom of expression and against intimidation.” Others will say (perhaps silently, to themselves) “no cartoon is worth risking my life for, I will take the safe option and self-censor.” This reduces the issue to a simplistic one of freedom of expression and intimidation. It is, of course, more complicated than that.

#JeSuisCharlie is the hashtag, showing solidarity with the murdered satirists. I share the sentiment. But I am not very comfortable with Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policy, what little I know about it, and the murder of its editorial staff doesn’t change that. I am not Charlie. Looking at the content of their cartoons, I see a Dawkins-like pleasure in ridiculing religion. Sometimes their work seemed to border on trolling.


There are always going to be extremists who, by definition, are outriders in any religious group. They will always be looking for reasons to take offence, and be tempted to act against their offenders. Of course we should not allow them to intimidate us, but we need to have a serious and adult discussion about how to deal with the threat of these extremists. Personally, I don’t think that the answer is confrontation. This validates them and serves their purpose. I think a better strategy is to engage with them or, failing that, to ignore them. This is a discussion we should be having.  But yesterday’s events now frame the debate in a way which means that reservations about the confrontational approach adopted by Charlie Hebdo are seen as giving in to terrorism.

And that’s the problem. The extremists want us all to share their black and white view of the world. They don’t like nuance. They don’t like rational debate, compromise, consensus. They love confrontation and intolerance, it defines them and gives them their sense of purpose.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons offended many people, not just the gunmen. Fair enough, our free society means that we are all going to have to find ways to cope with being offended, tolerance means not taking an assault rifle to avenge every perceived slight. But freedom of expression also means that those who do take offence should be allowed to say so. Many will be much less willing to speak out after yesterday’s events.

There are clear parallels with the recent fuss over “The Interview”, Sony’s comedy film about assassinating Kim Jong Un. There, too, I found myself torn between outrage at another’s attempt to censor what I could see and irritation at a clumsy and offensive attempt at comedy which did more harm than good.  Humour is a powerful tool and requires careful handling. Done right, it can pull the rug out from under the feet of humourless bigots; done wrong, it can actually help them further their illiberal agenda.

A few minutes ago, many of my colleagues went outside to stand in the rain and observe a minute’s silence as a mark of respect for those who died yesterday. I remember doing the same thing after 9/11. Then, solidarity gave way to despair as the extremists’ agenda was eagerly adopted by people in powerful positions who took it as an opportunity to roll back our own society’s liberal values. Wouldn’t it be nice if, this time, we didn’t hand the terrorists their victory?


Edit – perhaps I need a TLDR version: I think Charlie Hebdo were wrong to publish offensive cartoons (and Sony was wrong to green-light The Interview); but of course their right to publish must be defended.  We have to distinguish carefully between defending the right to offend, and defending the offence itself.  In the event – predictably – the offence has fed the cycle of misunderstanding and set back the cause of tolerance.  The only winners are those whose objective is to spread misunderstanding and intolerance.

4 thoughts on “Freedom of expression means freedom to disapprove

  1. Jo

    I do agree; in many ways, I think these kind of satirical publications go out of their way to offend people for no real reason; they are not standing up for liberal values, they are taking cheap pot-shots in the name of notoriety. However, this in no way justifies the actions of violent extremists – the right to offend and be offended in no way includes the right to retaliate with this kind of attack.

    It will be very sad indeed, but not surprising, if this further fuels the recent support for the far-Right in France and in the rest of Europe. Not at all sure what can be done to counteract this effect.

  2. Tom

    Oh my, I hadn’t seen that Sun column before now.

    I feel like saying your all for freedom of speech, while calling for enhanced surveillance is like saying the best way to stop someone from punching you in the face is to punch yourself in the face first. All day, every day.


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