I know this piece comes in the midst of great trauma and global challenges that are deeply emotionally charged. But I see great value in offering another perspective on the Charlie Hebdo publications and subsequent attack, as I feel as though to date the conversation has been entirely binary. Either you are for free speech and support Charlie Hebdo or you are, in the U.S and the Western world, for terrorism. That is a false binary, and one that I believe contributes to the problem. I think there is a vast place between the two that can help us move toward a more peaceful coexistence with people who value freedom of speech and those who care deeply about freedom of religion. Although I do not agree 100 percent with what Pope Francis said about the issue, I do think his perspective has a lot to offer.
I agree that verbal provocation is no excuse for violence, as the Pope clearly said. But I also see how some like Polly Toynbee in The Guardian can argue that the Pope’s comments were akin to a “wife beater defence.” However, another way of looking at the issue is that the folks at Charlie Hebdo are little more than bullies. It is obvious that continual harassment about an issue on which people are terrifically sensitive will not be well-received. In this case, the victims of the harassment are billions of people—it is all those who follow Islam’s dictates that it is blasphemy to denigrate Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. This is what the Pope said…not that violence is justified, just that it shouldn’t surprise us, either, as it was intended to incite and disrupt.
I am not saying we should never critique unfair policies or practices. In fact, we probably need to do even more of that without suffering repercussions, as is Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Bedawi, who has been lashed for his secular commentary. Satire and political cartoons can be an incredibly useful tool for raising awareness about various atrocities. But I have a hard time seeing how provocative images of who an estimated two billion people believe is their savior does anything to question policies, to shine a light on injustices, or to move the world in a better direction. Poke fun at dictators? OK. Of politicians who make promises then repeatedly renege? OK. At pompous messengers of “religious doctrine” who themselves violate the very tenets they profess? OK. But of the actual deities, I feel less confident. For instance, while I see the merit in satirizing the priests who allowed decades of abuse to be swept under the rug or the alleged followers of Islam who terrorize children in the name of their religion, I have a harder time seeing anything but bullying when it comes to attacking Jesus, God, Allah, Buddha, or other deities themselves. In the U.S, we pass laws prohibiting bullying. We train educators about it so that they can disrupt the behavior. The White House has weighed in on the issue and issued reprimands to schools and universities who fail to disrupt bullying behavior. Yet here, when journalists pick and poke at the most holiest of holies, they couch their behavior in “rights language.”
At least in the United States, journalistic enterprises have the “right” to poke fun at religious leaders and doctrine in the name of free speech. But I think what the Pope means is that perhaps we shouldn’t be looking at this as a rights issue at all. Perhaps it is, quite simply, mean to do what Charlie Hebdo repeatedly does and that, instead of an even greater divide between adherents to Islam and those who defend free speech, we should be looking for ways in which people can come together. Many scholars have argued that “rights talk” limits the dialogue or simply results in opposing sides trenching deeper into their positions. Harvard Law Professor and author of Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse Mary Ann Glendon argues that “A penchant for absolute formulations (“I have the right to do whatever I want with my property”) promotes unrealistic expectations and ignores both social costs and the rights of others.”
So, what next? I’d like to see an international dialogue that addresses the complexities of the issue, not just the surface opposition of freedom of speech versus freedom of religion. I’d like us to move to a place where we understand that, while we technically have the right to say or write something, we should exercise better judgment unless we can truly support the fact that our efforts will result in something better. I remain hopeful that others will view the issue similarly. I remain hopeful that, rather than dig deeper into their defenses, the many people with diverse perspectives on this issue will choose to consider another option.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology.