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The Limits of Offense

(Courtesy Photo)

Recently, an opinion piece was published in the Index focused on free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting entitled “Can Humor Go Too Far?”. Having written a number of satirical pieces for The Index, I was curious as to what the answer would be.

To begin, the article states that the shooting sparked controversy surrounding free speech and censorship, and then asks if the act of criticism is an infringement upon the right to free speech. The words “criticism” and “censorship” are gross misrepresentations here because they imply a degree of civility, but the attack on Charlie Hebdo lacked civility. Instead, the attack points to how violence or the threat of it was used to suppress speech that a group found offensive.

It is stated that the covers of Charlie Hebdo reveal the publication is “blatantly Islam-ophobic and anti-Semitic”. This conclusion is based on superficial evidence – literally judging a book by its cover. Even if the covers perfectly represent the contents of the publication, they only show that garish caricature is the staple of a magazine which is frequently anti-clerical and anti-theist, as evidenced by covers that unflatteringly portray Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish holy men alike.

The author accuses Charlie Hebdo of “punching down” at the oppressed and states that “satire is good when it makes fun of parties in power”. However, immunity from criticism is itself empowering, as Charlie Hebdo touched on in a cover entitled “Intouchables 2”, which depicted a Muslim and a Jew saying in French “Must not mock”. To grant such immunity is a fundamental violation of the ideal of free speech and thus oppressive.

The question “Can Humor Go Too Far?” is finally answered with the statement “freedom of speech doesn’t just mean ‘I can say what I want, it doesn’t matter if what I say is offensive’.”

That is exactly what it means. Freedom of speech means we do not pick and choose what can be said, no matter how abhorrent we find it. Certainly, there are limits: if in the process of creating or expressing something there is direct, real damage to another party, as is true in the extreme cases of child pornography or videos of beheadings, then one can be held culpable. However, the right not to be offended only extends so far in relation to the right to free expression, and certainly does not permit violence.

 

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The Limits of Offense