Monday, 19 January 2015

Paris, Francis, Dave, NIck and Eric - a retrospective for Charlie

With the passage of time since the events in Paris, and the on-going discussion in the news media and among political leaders, it has become possible to ask more searching questions about the extent to which the right to freedom of expression extends.

I think, for example, that to see the overwhelming response of the French people (and others) in the huge march through Paris and in other gatherings throughout the country, as being in support of freedom of expression understood as the freedom to give offence may be an oversimplification. There was a moving account in the BBC Radio 4 coverage of the march of a Muslim family who had brought along buckets and buckets of white roses (one suspects they ran a florists shop!) to give out to those they met at the march; and of the Jewish marcher who, receiving a flower, then embraced the family as "selfies" were taken. What were their motivations? Anxiety about the freedom of Charlie Hebdo to give offence or an anxiety for friendship with their neighbour? I suspect that an intuition in favour of reconciliation played a part for many; and an intuition in favour of a freedom in the face of, not so much terrorism, as a style of totalitarianism that Islamist terrorism represents.

The statement issued by SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication, articulated a motivation in favour of freedom as it condemned the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and placed that attack against a wider background:
As communicators we reaffirm our commitment to work for a culture of peace which respects the life and dignity of everyone. We also reiterate our support for the fundamental principle of freedom of expression and for all those journalists around the world who face the threat of death or injury in carrying out their profession.
We call on all people of good will to join together to help build a world where those of all cultures and faiths may live and work together in peace.
Pope Francis was perhaps in a unique position among world leaders to be able to  draw attention to the limits that should apply to freedom of expression. His "punch" was very widely reported. In summary, though the law might not proscribe actions that are gratuitously and cynically offensive, and that as a matter of prudence in the protection of the right of freedom of expression, nevertheless those who publish materials or speak have a responsibility to conduct themselves with a respect towards the beliefs of others. Blog-by-the-Sea captures much of this: Free Speech and Respect for Diverse Religious Beliefs (and follow her first link to a Yahoo News livestream of how news organisations have reacted after the Paris attacks).

I don't think Nick Clegg and David Cameron have really understood the issue involved. I heard the former on Radio 4 speak in terms of a "right to give offence"; and more recently the latter has spoken on American TV of a "right to cause offence about someone's religion" in a free society, and that in such a society we have to accept that "newspapers, magazines can publish materials that are offensive to some, so long as it is within the law". Their far too ready assimilation of the right to freedom of expression to a right to give offense is unhelpful to say the least. Equally unhelpful is the unstated presumption that it is the law of the land that defines the boundaries of the rights accruing to the human person.

[See also Catholic Voices reply to some of the UK news media coverage of David Cameron's remarks, and of Pope Francis' original words as mediated by that coverage: David Cameron's missed opportunity to agree with Pope Francis.]

Eric Pickles letter to Muslim leaders has received criticism. It strikes me as being somewhat patronising - and arrogant at the same time. "British values are Muslim values".... err, no, if British values include the right to give religious offense as propounded by the leaders of our coalition government. The letter clearly shows a lack of appreciation of how a religious faith will view its relationship to wider society and to the instruments of state.

What I think Nick, Dave and Eric need to give far more thought to is exactly how the relationship between religion and a free society is to be articulated, be that at the level of the individual religious believer who might be "radicalised" (their term, not mine) or at the level of religious communities as a whole. And so far, I don't think they have even recognised the question.

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