Friday, January 16, 2015

Freedom, civility and responsibility

Millions marched across Europe and elsewhere in support of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine whose staff was brutally murdered by Islamic extremists. Millions, in solidarity, declared themselves, "I am Charlie."

Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. These ideals are all precious and must be defended. But was the massacre at Charlie Hebdo the result of free expression or flawed judgment? Make no mistake: The culprits here are the Islamist gunmen who murder in the name of religion; they alone are responsible.

But the satirical magazine flouted its offensiveness toward Muslims — and other religions. The magazine's humor was based in part on its atheist principles. They knew that millions of Muslims considered any depiction of the prophet Mohammed to be a sacrilege. That made them all the more eager to draw caricatures of the prophet. Their cartoons were the equivalent of poking a complainant in the eye.

Pope Francis, who is no defender of religious violence, suggested this week that Charlie Hebdo should have shown more respect for the religious beliefs of Muslims. Respect for another person's religion should be a principle as precious as freedom of the press. That is not to say that blasphemy should be a criminal offense or that respect for religion should be written into law. It should be a matter of good manners and social grace.

We are in an age when people are too easily offended. It seems difficult sometimes to say anything without offending someone. But respect for others' religion or politics should come easily and would certainly avoid disagreements and fights. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, many people have quoted Voltaire: "I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Perhaps we should add, "I find what you say offensive and disrespectful of others, and I wish you would reconsider the way you make your point."

We are in an age when disrespect has become respectable. Political leaders shout at each other and say cruel things. Comedians base their humor on tearing down the walls of civility. Many "jokes" make us cringe.

Charlie Hebdo, a magazine I've never read, pushed the envelope of disrespect, particularly of religion. While it had every right to these expressions, the magazine did not promote civil discussion, mutual respect or cross-cultural understanding.

No one should be executed for exercising their freedoms, but everyone should be more cautious about offensive behavior and more respectful of other people. Freedom carries with it an obligation to exercise that freedom responsibility. With great freedom comes great responsibility.


Debra said...

Amen, Hal. Truly we live in an age when people are easily offended, and where disrespect has become respectable. Your excellent article here reminded me of a scripture: “All things are lawful… but not all things are expedient…” Those words certainly apply here.

surfsalterpath said...

You are giving islamic jihadist muslims an out here. No excuses. NOOO excuses! People in what is now ameriKa get 'offended' all the time. Do they KILL? NO EXCUSES!
islamic jihadist muslims/terrorists are the enemy and need to be eliminated. No excuse!

Erstwhile Editor said...

SSP: We are in agreement. No excuses for murder, which is why I stated in the post: "Make no mistake: The culprits here are the Islamist gunmen who murder in the name of religion; they alone are responsible."