After You, Charlie…



by Joel Gn

A question that perplexed many in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack was whether the law will still continue to defend the right of free speech. This should not be in doubt, for as far as the Parisian authorities are concerned, the publication will not be banned and the perpetrators have been judged for taking the law into their own hands.

Yet, far from quelling any debate surrounding the tragedy, we are still left confounded by the value of free speech that many of Charlie’s supporters attest to. Were the victims noble martyrs, or careless ideologues? Does free speech still matter, if one can no longer offend?

These questions presuppose certain assumptions about free speech, that when properly contextualised, turn out to be rather problematic. For example, there are liberals who will insist that free speech is an end to itself. This argument, of course, not only overlooks other socio-political purposes that free speech can and might serve; it also proves to be of little use when the lived realities of different groups are taken into consideration.

And even if one intends to be utterly consistent and make ‘speech’ free for all, it should be noted that such a state of affairs is as utopian as it is anarchic, because this would in theory neither require the intervention, nor the protection, of the law. So, although it is plain to see that the end of free speech may allude to a universal ‘good’, such a good remains closed to us, at least from an empirical standpoint.

Hence, it may be worthwhile to ask if there are not other ends served in part by free speech, and how the law may administer these said ‘freedoms’ with the corresponding due processes. Also relevant to this question is the assumption that free speech is synonymous with the freedom to offend, but that is a reductive simplification.

Indeed, the law is called upon to protect the offender from the offended; but offence, or more specifically sheer provocation, is not the primary reason for the law to intervene, for the latter is concerned with maintaining a rationalised order, not catalysing conflicts that lead to chaos. That said, the right not to be offended is more sacred than the right to be and we will not require free speech laws if all we will ever do is exchange pleasantries, but to claim that free speech laws exist in order for one to offend and hence promote conflict is patently false.

This falsity can be better understood in light of the politics that have come to define most Western democracies, where censorship laws—relative to draconian states or dictatorships—are rarely enacted. The act of self-censorship may be prudent for some, but it would strike most liberal democracies as odd, if not cowardly to do so, precisely because to withhold what is deemed to be a ‘valid’ opinion runs counter to the belief that the law would protect a person’s right to speak, even if those very words (or cartoons) entail the possibility of offending someone.

With that in mind, one can say that the purpose of free speech laws is not the creation of conflict per se, but the maintenance of a democratic public sphere brought about through the civil exchange of diverse views. In other words, even as one should not speak with the sole aim to offend, one also ought not to withhold a valid view just because of what the other party can do to him or her. It is from this point, that we get a comprehensive view of the purpose of free speech and how it is directed towards participatory democracy, where the law works impartially to ensure that the views of one can be given due consideration when measured up against the views of a more powerful other.

This purpose also has the implication that citizens will be able to make better choices concerning their own fates, if and only when all groups are able to dialogue with, and criticise, one another without fear or favour. It should be clear by now that free speech is not an end in itself, nor is it a direct a license to offend. Rather, it is construed as an indispensable part of Western democracy.

Hence, it is only by bracketing free speech within a Western democratic model that one may witness its efficacy. This is an important distinction, for free speech is not a pre-requisite, but a logical outcome of certain social arrangements within Western democracies. In other words, before free speech can be politically viable in any community there must first be a consensus on what sorts of speech acts qualify as ‘free’. Political satire, for example, would constitute free speech; copyright violation on the other hand, not so.

Free speech laws are thus an oxymoron, precisely because these practical considerations show that protection and liberation do not mean the same thing. After all, one is truly free to do something only if the law does not recognise what that thing is. By precisely defining what can or cannot be done, by discriminating between offenders and offended, laws effectively curtail freedom and impose more social control.

So it is within this particular context that one can look into the problems surrounding Charlie Hebdo. Putting aside other more debatable ideological concerns about Islamophobia and racism, it is clear that the incident represents a confrontation between a Western understanding of free speech and a particular group who deemed its exercise deserving of death.

Yet, it is the Left’s lauding of free speech that has become a dangerously hypocritical stance, for as the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack demonstrates, it defends a notion of free speech that has all along been rigged according to Western terms, which is to say, ‘Yes we do want to include the other, but only if the other talks like us’; while failing to conceive of a telos for free speech, apart from defining it as a subjective end in itself.

About the Author:


Joel Gn is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space.