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