Rethinking Charlie Hebdo: The right to Freedom of expression Vs the duty to respect the beliefs of others.

By Nwala Ijeoma *

In the wake of the events of 7th January, 2015, the world is still in shock and pain. Most of us are really afraid for we do not know what the future holds for our dear “right to freedom of expression”. Before going further, I would like to state, unequivocally, that in no way do I support the use of violence as a way of settling disagreements or reacting to any threatening opinion. The Charlie Hebdo killing was mindless and not well thought- out.

However, when half of the world is pointlessly holding vigils, demonstrations and ‘copping’ trends with the hash tag #JeSuisCharlie, it all becomes disturbing as it shows we clearly do not understand what the right to freedom of expression really is. We are merely following trends on the internet.

This poses a danger, as only a handful are saying what needs to be said. As John Stuart Mill said, “the right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins .” This quote or versions of it are also attributed to a few other writers such as Holmes Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. One might be curious enough to ask, ‘why should there be an end to my right to swing my arms? They are, in fact, my arms and why shouldn’t I be minded to do what I please with it?” If you have asked yourself this, you are not alone. This has been the basis of one of the most heated legal arguments; whether morality is and should be a part of law?

To answer the first set of questions, a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge might be told. A man was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose. He asked the Judge if he did not have the right to swing his arms in a free country and the judge replied “your right to swing your arms end just where the others man’s nose begins.” Even the law abhors careless misstatements and acts or omissions that end up hurting others- causing damages, according to law. Therefore, we are all encouraged to exercise care and caution in all we do.

If you still choose to ask, what then does morality have to do with this argument? I will reply with a few questions too. Are we not being moral, when we choose right instead of wrong? Are we not being moral when we think of what our actions will cost our neighbors? Are we not being moral, when we lend happiness to others instead of sadness; when we encourage rather than put people down; when we say kind words and not harsh ones; when we criticize, to encourage improvement and not insult and mock; when we prevent a stranger from dying in whatever little way we can instead of walking away and most of all, when we love one another? Do we all not need love? Are we afraid of the word ‘morality’ because it might denote that we are affiliated to one religious order or another, and we cannot have that? A neighbor is any person who may be reasonably affected by our actions and inactions whether or not he is in close proximity to us.

Morality is the very fabric of this universe. But is it even desirable that all rights must have an end or limit? Morality will say YES! When we exercise complete and absolute freedom or rights, we, too, become despots as we will be merely living out our own selfish and uncontrolled passions without, for a second, thinking of how it affects our neighbor. Because, while you have a right to swing your arms in public ,in a jolly manner, as an expression of excitement or whatever, you must, however, stop when you walk into a crowd so that you do not injure anyone. Yes, morality places a heavy (worthwhile) burden on us when we exercise rights because for every right, there is a corresponding duty.

Now where does the right to freedom of expression end? I say it ends when the feelings and beliefs of others are at stake. Yes, we have a right to say and express our opinions without fear of being put down or fear of violence of any kind but do we do not also have a corresponding duty to respect the feelings and beliefs of others when we seek to express ourselves? Isn’t there ever a thing as “sticks and stones may break my bones, but your words almost killed me”? Should we go on proclaiming rights and forgetting that corresponding duties weigh heavily upon on the ‘right-holder’?

I am not a Muslim but I believe that Muslims are entitled to their own beliefs and so are Catholics, Buddhists and atheists. We have no right, under the toga of freedom of expression, to jest Mohammed, Jesus or any religious character or event which a religion holds dear and sacred. We have no right, to say words that would hurt our neighbors. We have no right, whatsoever, to intimidate a religion by mocking the ideals of that group. The word ‘respect’ is being used so little today.

The Charlie Hebdo editors did not ask to be killed but this does not make them martyrs. They did, however, provoke reactions from people by hurting them continuously with their publications. What most people know of the Charlie Hebdo Story is that they got killed because they were journalists expressing their right to freedom of expression. What people do not ask is, did he carry out the duty that came with that right. He deserves to be mourned as dead people should but he should not to be treated as a saint. But because he is dead now, we will not point fingers.

I am sure that when those zealots set out to kill the Charlie Hebdo editors on the 7th, they did not know that today the world would be celebrating them. In fact, if they did, I am sure the editors would still be alive today. They did not also understand that by that singular action, they have further put other Muslims and Islam in a more difficult position in Europe. This is to show you that they felt murder was the only way to ‘defend’ their faith since religion in the twenty-first century is foremost perceived as undesirable and a threat and very little is done to prevent the senseless mockery of religious beliefs. Violence is in no way an answer to any question or opinion, no matter how threatened we may feel by that opinion. I am not insensitive to fact that men just died, but I am also sensitive to fact that the editors of Charlie Hebdo exhibited courage when they chose to continue with satirical, ‘insensitive’ and often vile publications despite threats against them. They are, however, not saints as the world would like to believe because they chose to disrespect the feelings and beliefs of others.

So, no, I am not Charlie, #JeSuisNePasCharlie. I am Nwala Ijeoma and I do not condone mindless violence or mindless expressions against another’s belief. I have the freedom to say what I want but a duty not hurt my neighbor whenever I chose to express myself.

*Nwala Ijeoma is a law student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka

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9 comments on “Rethinking Charlie Hebdo: The right to Freedom of expression Vs the duty to respect the beliefs of others.

  1. A little perspective. When people say they are Charlie, they say it in solidarity with the victim. They say it because they were killed for doing what they had the right to and believed in. The question of duty as you put it is secondary and for the most part subjective. No one is making them saints(they don’t believe in sainthood anyway) but to say the campaign or show of solidarity is “pointless” is deeply misguided and juvenile. I cannot speak for if their work is right or wrong. For them they criticise what they feel and BELIEVE is wrong. So even if you say it’s their duty to respect other people’s belief, is it not your duty to respect their belief? The question then becomes should all beliefs be respected? Eventually we get drawn into a shark infested water. Because for some things the distinction between right and wrong is blurred and violently subjective. The gift of education and civilisation we enjoy today didn’t come by “respecting” other people’s belief. A lot of it was “anathema” to lots of Catholics during the Renaissance period. Some where out of line. But as the editors of the Economist put it, “nothing that is written with a pen or pencil deserves a reply by Kalashnikov”. Even if we agree that the Charlie Hebdo is radical, to talk about duty at a time like this is akin to telling a mother who just lost her child that weeping won’t bring him back. True but who are you say that? A rational idiot?

  2. Afamsco, I think you got it wrong. I agree with Ijeoma, she is not approving the violence, but she is saying that there exists an objective duty on the journalists not to turn freedom of speech to spite.
    Indeed, Insult is the lowest – and now most dangerous – form of free speech which should be avoided . In fact their action goes contrary to the motto of France, which is Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
    I think I agree with Bernard Toutounji who said “I do not believe that it is a virtue to mock and belittle the beliefs of others. I do not believe it is a virtue to quash the good name of others. I do not believe we have a right to spread gossip and scandal. Publications like Charlie Hebdo do not make the world a richer place, they cause division and hurt amongst people. They do violence to the hearts and feelings of others”.
    As regards the questions of should all beliefs be respected, I think since we live in a pluralistic society, we have to respect other peoples beliefs for there to be peaceful co-existence, this respect does not call for acceptance but tolerance and in fact if we want to criticise their beliefs, it must be done intelligibly and not in a caricature manner of Charlie Hebdo.

    • Mr. Joshua, I understood Ijeoma perfectly. If anything I feel you didn’t understand my comment.She doesn’t approve of it but one comes off from reading that piece with the impression that it is somehow their fault. She implicitly blames the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist for their death. But She also used the word “pointless” for describing those who stand in solidarity with their victims. She, why not condoning their murder blames the victim. Even if that’s not her intent, her timing means that it id the impression most people get. It’s a bit like blaming a rape victim for putting on skimpy outfit. It is no different from saying “rape is bad but she should not have on skimpy outfit.” And also saying the protest for the victim is pointless because she didn’t dress as she should.” A lot of people have these views. And it’s their right to. But I feel it is deeply misguided. It takes away the spotlight from the priority. And no matter how well thought out such views are, it should be condemned in total especially at times like this. You can’t build a house of rock on a foundation of quicksand. They are cartoonists. Carricature and satire is their trade. Am I a fan of Charlie Hebdo myself, not really? But I can say I’m charlie at this time.

      • What you defend about the piece is really not what I attacked. If the question is if Charlie Hebdo makes the world a better place or not, then we can reason that out. What you defend about the piece, I find no fault in… in theory at least. what I find fault in, is well laid out in my first comment. The question of if all belief is to be respected, respected in the sense of not be criticised or ridiculed is more of a rhetorical question. And I agree with you that for peace, we need to respect them. But if you think of it deeply the ultimate purpose of free speech is to question beliefs. To criticise even if it means people will not always like it. Our duty is to respond to such criticism with criticism. And if a person decides to resort to violence, I do not think a campaign to denounce such attack a “pointless” affair. It’s the finest defence of free speech. It’s the basis of it. Never to resort to violence because what another man’s view offends you is the basis of free speech.

      • You cannot throw away one part of a concept because it suits your argument to do so. When the world says they are charlie, they are praising those editors for what they did and what they died for. You can’t separate their death from the reason behind it.
        You can be Charlie if you want to. No argument there. But while you’re Charlie, remember the real meaning of Caricature and Satire. Do not resort to pettiness and cheap mockery which achieves nothing rather than embolden the people you are trying to correct.
        Be Charlie all you want. I’m not saying it’s not your right to be anything even if it is an idea you are not a fan of. But while you are Charlie, do not be quick to throw away your duty because you’ve been handed a right. You can do so much with the right to freedom of expression than to spread hatred and let people burn by your words.
        I will not be Charlie. Because this world needs so much encouragement and constructive criticism that keeping vigils for something I’m not a fan of should not be a priority. It’s only ironical.

  3. As regards blaming victims for being victims, it is a reality sometimes we have to and indeed blame them. The same way we blame a rich man who lives in a majestic house and leaves his door wide open and he is robbed. We blame victims sometimes because they don’t act reasonably. A reasonable man is one who is aware of the consciousness of his environment. As such it is reasonable for a rich man to protect his house, not because he is not free to leave his doors wide open, he is, but because he lives among people who unfortunately think differently from him.
    The editors of Charlie Hebdo did not act reasonably, they were living in a utopic world where they thought they could do whatever they wanted and however. Their feet’s were not on the ground
    Also Ijeoma tried to stress the fact that human rights have limitation, for example a man’s freedom of movement can be limited when if he moves around he causes harm or injury to others, so he is either placed on house arrest or in prison.
    I agree that being a Cartoonists involves satire and caricature, but there has to be a line which ought not to be crossed. This is the fact Ijeoma is trying to express and you don’t want to accept it. They cannot have the right to caricature anything and anyhow. There has to be a line. Just the same way sprinters don’t run indefinitely there has to be a place we say stop. It is indeed a law of nature.
    It is not only a religious precept but also a legal imperative that we should be our neighbour’s keeper, and refrain from things that will cause harm to them.
    If you question the reasonableness of limitation, then you also question the jurisprudence of law and the necessity of law.
    As regards resorting to violence to denounce criticism, I agree with you that it is undemocratic, uncivil and irrational. But there are types of criticism, being objective and intelligible is the best type of criticism that is advocated, and this principle can also be applied in cartoons. I am a keen follower of the Economist, and their cartoons though satirical and comical are within respectable ambits.

  4. On the other hand, I think Ijeoma description of the vigils and marches as pointless is because of it hypocritical and superficial nature. Where was the world which suddenly has now become a lover of free expression been, when people were restricted by the PC (political correctness) police, for expressing their personal opinions? Where was the world when the University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality, or when Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians, or when Brendan Eich co-founder and CEO of Mozilla Corporation was forced to resigned last year, for a donation he made in 2008 to support marriage to mean marriage between a man and woman. The list seems to have no end.
    It seems we are applying different standards.

  5. in the wake of the charlie hebdo killings, i came across a quote by Voltaire(which i absolutely subscribe to) and it says “i may not agree with what you say but i will die protecting your right to say it “. i also came across a cartoon on CNN, it showed a man lying down in a pool of blood and another standing over him with a gun. the gunman rationalizing his action said “he drew first” i hope we can all appreciate the irony in his statement. their is no justification for the killings. once you start rationalizing such actions then maybe you can also justify the abduction of the chibok girls, the Boston marathon bomber and jihadi john. all religions are insulted, Muslims should take such insults in stride or else they will only be supporting the view that Islam is prima facie a religion of violence.

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