Saturday, 10 January 2015

A brief thought on Charlie

Some Catholic comment has argued that, from a Catholic point of view, "on n'est pas Charlie": see here, for an example.

In quite a thoughtful way, and responding to much the same evidence base as those who have argued that they are not Charlie,  Humblepiety answered the question Je suis Charlie? in the affirmative.

This post at First Things also gives some insight into how the French themselves have reacted to the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo: My Life with Charlie Hebdo. It is also interesting to read the message to the Catholics of Paris published today by Archbishop Vingt-Trois, published here at La Croix.

At one level, the discussion can be held at the level of the legislation in force in a country. Charlie Hebdo 's cartoons are, by all accounts, quite offensive to those who practice the Catholic faith in France as much as some of them have been to Muslims. But a country where the language of religious offense has been enshrined in positive law is Pakistan .... where the blasphemy law does in effect lead to very significant religious persecution of both Muslims and those who live out other religious beliefs.

In the more secular countries of the developed world, the language is that of discrimination and protected characteristics, with actions that disadvantage someone who manifests a protected characteristic being the subject of civil or criminal sanction. There is also a category of legal provision with regard to harassment and the giving of offence. The risk with this situation is that reasonable manifestation of an opinion differing from the prevailing social consensus can be construed as harassment or offence thereby particularly restricting freedom of religious expression in (relatively speaking) secularised societies.

My own thoughts on the question have focussed on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the Declaration reads:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The presumption of much of the discussion about Charlie Hebdo has been that the material it publishes falls under this provision of freedom of expression, understood as conveying a right to say and publish pretty much anything that one wishes - regardless. I am not sure that the specification of the right contained in the last clause of Article 19 does in fact convey such a right.

Article 12 of the Declaration reads, with italics added to indicate the element of the Article relevant to the present discussion:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
In the light of Article 18's assertion of the right to freedom of belief and practice for both individuals and communities, I would suggest that attacks upon the honour and reputation of a religious community would equate to attacks upon the honour and reputation of the individuals who are members of that community and so fall under the provision of Article 12. [This is reinforced by recalling that the immediate historical context of the UN Declaration was the events of the Second World War and the Nazi persecution of Jews and other minority communities.] Understood in this way, Article 12 provides a boundary within which the freedom of expression asserted in Article 19 should be exercised. Catholic commentators are, in effect, suggesting that the material published by Charlie Hebdo goes beyond this boundary in attacking the honour and reputation of members of religious communities.

The significance of considering the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that the rights enshrined there arise from the nature of the human person; they are, in the words of the preamble to the Declaration, "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family". The positive law of a country does not convey those rights; rather, it should protect them. In addition, the language of the Declaration is not that of a particular religious community that, when projected into positive law, undermines the freedom of others; and neither is it the language of a secularised liberalism that risks undermining genuine freedom of expression of information and ideas.

Certainly those who were killed in the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo were subject to a breach of Article 3 of the UN Declaration, which asserts the right of everyone to life, liberty and security of the person. Those who carried out the attack committed a quite heinous crime against the human persons of their victims.

But, though a certain allowance has to be made for the particular genre of journalism that comes under the heading of "satirical journalism" and that, of its nature, gives rise to some degree of offense when you are yourself its particular target (cf the reaction of Eve-Alice Roustang linked above), one can debate whether or not Charlie Hebdo is an authentic representative of the freedom of expression as articulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Oui, on est Charlie (cf Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme Article 3), mais - peut-etre oui, peut-etre non - en meme temps, peut etre on n'est pas Charlie (cf Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme Article 12).

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