The heartbreaking and senseless shooting of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris has thrown up a firestorm of opinion.
The idiotic attackers were taking censorship to its ugliest and most brutal and in its bloody aftermath have brought out a whole series of fine talk from champions of the free press. There was much talk of France being a bastion of free speech and the one country where freedom of expression is key to the culture and society- as it should be, whether you liked, agreed or hated what was being said.
But on closer examination it seems like free speech is a far more complex debate than just being allowed to say what you want. Does free speech mean being able to write, print, sing or rap what you want no matter how ugly it is? does there have to be a boundary? a border of decency that you just can’t cross and who gets to decide where these lines are to be drawn? One person’s acidic take on religion is poison to another, another person’s homophobic or racist writing is totally objectionable to another.
It was bad enough the agonising over the Blurred Lines hit and its dodgy lyrics – it was like liberal civil war with liberal ideals fighting themselves- the belief in freedom of expression no matter how dumb versus the hatred of sexism.
The idea of freedom of speech varies drastically wherever you are trying to speak- from getting 50 lashes in Saudi Arabia to Europe’s muffled belief in the beautiful idea. There is no solid line either- there are three different blasphemy laws that apply in the UK- from England to Scotland to Northern Ireland for starters!
And in the UK it still seems a statutory offence under a 1697 Blaspemy Act still does exist- but at least it gets ignored and no-one has struck of the ruling that holders of public office have to believe in the bible- in the UK free speech seems to be about ignoring arcane laws.
The fault line appears to be religion- with a large minority of the planet still in thrall to a belief system and the rest of the population moving away from the old beliefs there is going to be some friction. And this week it exploded.
Plenty of the cartoons on Charlie Hebdo were purposely crude and designed to antagonise. They knew what they were doing, they knew it was dangerous but the moment that trigger was pulled a line has been crossed and all the cultural contradictions exploded in an orgy of disgusting violence. A depressing violence that has unfortunately changed the world for the worst and part of the meltdown that is being played out across the planet from hundreds being killed in Nigeria to journalists getting killed in other countries.
So where does freedom of speech sit now? It’s a noble sentiment but there are so many raw nerve endings that it’s going to take some clear headed thinking to make it work.
Even in France – the country that makes a stand for freedom of expression rappers have been imprisoned for their lyrics- crude and ugly lyrics that expressed a directionless but perceivable anger of the outsider. In France rap is the music that is the soundtrack of the frustrated youth locked out of the French way of life in the ghettos- rap music with its crude and stark lyrics of frustration that have seen bans for some of the rappers as well as the aforementioned jail terms.
Some of these lyrics have political content and some are painfully misogynist but do we defend their right to free speech?
There’s plenty not to like in these lyrics- the sexism for starters but do we ban them? where are we going to draw the line in the freedom of speech battle? are we going to draw a line? do we need a line? who gets to draw the line? can we live in an anything goes culture any more? or do we take pride in being able to allow the constant flow of opposing and sometimes quite extreme opinion whether we agree with them or not? Can we stretch the fabric of our culture to include so many opposing views?
What is clear is that we have to find away before the 21st century implodes into a cultural war.