Perhaps it seems so easy to rally in the face of the aftermath of last Wednesday’s terror attack on satirical publication Charlie Hebdo to fight for free speech. Too easy, in fact.
This is because we identify with the people who lost their lives in this attack, and we lionize them for their willingness to say things we may deem as “the wrong thing” and stand by it. And it’s that very right to say “the wrong thing,” even if that “wrong thing” may someday be aimed in our direction, that we need to protect.
It is a reality we have to understand, after all: protecting free speech also intrinsically protects the right of people to offend us. And believe it or not, this is a good thing.
When a writer pokes fun at, say, religion, a lot of us take offense over how this person could take such a thing we hold dear so lightly. This is expected. In fact, this is intended.
The reality is, there is no one idea that should be so pure, so unassailable, so untouchable, so sacrosanct, that it should not be subject to civilized debate or discussion. It doesn’t matter if it’s about human rights or Mario Kart or Jesus Christ: these are all topics that are enriched by thoughtful, civilized, discussion, which has and can be triggered by what is perceived as an offensive statement.
Civilized discussion does not involve terrorist attacks.
So does this mean we all get to be a bunch racist, ableist, classist, sexist, and every other -ist kind of scumbags, like some kind of horrible Stormfront overrun? Of course not! The fact that our rights are protected doesn’t mean we exercise our rights every single time, after all. We all have the right to vote, but not everyone votes. We all have the right to offend, but not everyone chooses to. Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to.
All it means is that if you do, it doesn’t become an expected and acceptable response to storm your doorstep and kill you over it.
So why is it that people can still get sued for libel or slander after exercising their free speech? Because other people have other rights, too. Rights do have limits, after all. Otherwise, we would be all immortal, since we all have the right to live. Furthermore, whether or not the person being slandered has hurt feelings is immaterial to whether or not slander actually occurred, so yeah, those two don’t even go hand-in-hand, to begin with.
And again, none of their rights gives them free rein to launch a terrorist attack on you. This is a very important distinction to make.
Even when no legal infrastructure is in place for repercussions, instinctively, we know we aren’t free from repercussions. We are free to say a lot of things, but the minute we say something that endangers people, or violates their basic human rights (again, being insulated from stuff that offends you is not a basic human right), then yes, civilized society has the means to deal with that. Civilized society, of course, frowns on terrorist attacks, so that isn’t one of the repercussions we should be willing to accept for our actions.
This is also why despite the fact that we now lionize the people of Charlie Hebdon, as we ought, we cannot possibly condone the racism, xenophobia, and even Islamophobia their satire depicts, regardless of the intent of the satire. While we may view satire with nuance, it doesn’t make a horrible message magically correct. It merely makes this horrible message one that was made with a point.
You have every right to say that gay people are an abomination. But if, afterwards, you suddenly find a massive backlash in public opinion against you, this doesn’t mean your freedom of speech was curbed. Nobody censored you. The people just exercised their own freedom right back at you. If that offends you and you can’t take it, well, tough. That’s how the right to offend works. But that also underscores a particular right that goes hand in hand with the right to offend…
People can be offended by things we say, and respond through the same means we have offended them: in speech. It is their right. We can’t tell people, no matter how butthurt they are, that they have no right to be offended. Especially not us Filipinos, obviously.
In the end, though, the right to be offended simply means that when we take offense, our response has to be commensurate. Maybe we fire back with a similarly offensive statement. Maybe we block them on Facebook. But we sure as hell don’t launch a terror attack on their doorstep over it, because we’re better than that.
People tend to lose track of what free speech means because they think that a forum banning them means their right is being taken away. But free speech doesn’t work like that, since the forum is a private entity with its own set of rules and guidelines.
For as long as the government didn’t arrest you for your incessant trolling and ten-paragraph signature, then you still have free speech. For instance, you can go to a blog and do your thing there, all without need of condoning or tolerating terrorism attacks in response to your actions.
The idea that the sun is the center of the solar system may be a notion we take for granted now, but there was a time the Catholic church was massively offended by this. Slaves being recognized as human beings? Women suffrage? All of these things used to offend people – normally, the dominant class.
It was a less enlightened time then. Which also meant terrorist attacks called “The Inquisition” or “lynching” were par for the course, which they shouldn’t be by now.
I invite you to engage in a thought exercise with me. Imagine your mom or dad looking at you while you are six years old, and telling you, “child, you can try as hard as you want, but you can’t do everything you put your mind to.”
Is this offensive to the sensibilities of a child with wonder? Probably. For six-year old me, definitely. But is it true? Absolutely.
And yes, not a few of us do protect our children from being offended a lot of the time, so we tell them little lies. Their drawings are great. They’re totally awesome and cool. They are special and unique – just like everybody else. All the while, in protecting them from offense, we give them a bloated self-esteem with an emaciated measure of self-awareness to go with it. And then they implode. And in some cases, yes, launch a lethal attack on someone just doing their job, or at least threaten people with one.
The truth can be offensive, and to hide that truth behind lies is a greater disservice than hurting someone’s feelings.
While this may seem like a strange tribute to the people who tragically lost their lives last Wednesday, it is a fitting one, because they died to exercise and uphold the right to offend. May this reminder of the good this right can do for us allow us to never take this blatant impingement upon our rights sitting down. Because we can’t. And we won’t.