Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Very often there are no easy answers, but perhaps the worst response of all is a hashtag "like". 

I believe in free speech, but I don't believe in insulting people intentionally. 

This was an attempt to explain my feelings in the Canberra Times . . . 


Je ne suis pas Charlie. I am not Charlie (Hebdo). Deliberately setting out to cause offence doesn’t appear a particularly intelligent response to the many profound problems of the world. But speaking freely is fundamental. I’ve (personally) provoked enough people to understand that what one person believes is acceptable will go beyond the pale for another. That’s why nothing can excuse the appalling, unforgivable and despicable attack in Paris. It must be condemned. Utterly. Nevertheless there is a difference between open discussion and yelling abuse; between intelligent argument and rude insult.

Je ne suis pas un bigot. Although Attorney General George Brandis may believe everyone has the right to be a bigot, I don’t. Hate speech doesn’t open conversations; it closes them down. Nobody possesses the untrammelled right to force those particular opinions down others throats, insult, or assert untruths. Wandering into this area is like turning over old mossy stones: all sorts of vicious animals shelter underneath, waiting to escape and spread their poison. Freedom of expression is vital and important.

Discussion is about opening up new possibilities. Nobody is more boring than the old acquaintance holding completely decided positions on every question. Fundamentalism is about much more than religion. I fully believe in climate change, for example, but it’s obvious Tim Flannery’s baldly simplistic model – hot and dry everywhere – is incorrect. We need to engage with the troublesome and problematic. Anyone who tells you they have the answer to every issue will have gaping wholes in the centre of their solutions.

Take something simple, such as the French government’s decreed minute of silence to observe the massacre. Understandable. But can’t you understand the students – often Muslim – at more than 70 schools throughout the country who made noise during this period? They were doing just what Charlie Hebdo did: resisting authority and refusing to conform. They didn’t feign sympathy for those who had insulted their beliefs. If the magazine could lawfully make fun of their religion why couldn’t they, equally legitimately (without condoning the killings) object to being forced into silence? That’s the meaning of ‘freedom’.

Freedom of expression is about choosing where we create the boundaries, and that’s why it will remain contested territory. It’s legally permissible in France to say things that would be prohibited here (and vice versa). Charlie Hebdo was open with its ridicule. A court case found, for example, the magazine could describe Pope John Paul II as “un pape de merde” (a pope of shit), although such vitriol was only permitted as long as it was directed at a religion (our blasphemy, or hate speech) rather than towards individuals (defaming particular Roman Catholics).

None of this mattered when society was relatively homogeneous. Everyone ‘knew’ what was acceptable and what transgressed the boundaries. Today, however, people with very different attitudes and beliefs live alongside one another. It’s quite understandable that some want to curb what others say. The problem is that too often people take refuge in the knee-jerk, unthinking response.

Unfortunately ‘liking’ posts, or ‘re-tweeting’ them risks endorsing slabs of thought rather than conveying nuances that you may disagree with. No thinking person can possibly endorse someone else’s entire manifesto and all too often such responses simply reinforce stereotypes. Instead of illuminating our thinking with different perspectives they dull it with formulaic responses of resounding mediocrity, or worse. What should be made, for example, of those subscribing to the hashtag, “Je suis Kouachi”, the name of the murdering brothers? Should they be arrested, or is their free speech protected?

The past 50 years have witnessed an extraordinary economic expansion. The benefits of this massive development have, until now, been concentrated in relatively few economies. That’s changing. It can no longer be taken for granted that the privileged assumptions of the West represent universal values. Concurrently growth is slowing, leading to more and more people rejecting our norms. Previously homogenous societies have been transformed by migration. Creating a new culture with room to share such divergent perspectives won’t be easy.

Our ability to achieve this depends on communication and allowing everyone a chance to participate in the ensuing conversation. Lots of world leaders marched with linked arms to display their “solidarity” in Paris, but the gesture had more than a whiff of hypocrisy and the ridiculous about it. One glance along the front rank and it was evident that most were there for their own purposes. Everyone likes free speech as long as it’s their speech that’s being protected. But perhaps it was, somehow, appropriate to watch intolerance (wrapped in the clothes of free expression) parading through streets where at one time guillotines were used to silence critics. The idea that the West has nourished a long and remarkable tradition of tolerance and freedom is quite bizarre. Even in Ancient Athens, where the tradition of free speech supposedly originated, that city-state developed a procedure of getting rid of troublesome orators. It ostracised people, forcing them to depart for a decade. No recourse, no appeal.

The key is, as always, perspective. Listening to other, marginalised voices assists this by challenging the status quo. This is the ideal we need to nurture – that of discussion. Not shouting, but conversing. Hearing and giving space to the ideas and perspectives of others. Regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much value placed on this here in Australia – by the left as much as the right.

Real insight doesn’t come from the commonplace. In the wake of the Paris killings Lebanese author Dyab Abou Jahjah added a new idea. He insisted he wasn’t Charlie either, asserting instead, “Je suis Ahmed.”

It’s a tribute to the Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman callously shot on the pavement by the killers as they escaped the building. A true defender of civilisation.


  1. Reminds me of that book by Robert Graves, which also had various television and film adaptations... "I Nicholas". The difficulty in managing perceptions and expectations is only found in Western societies which have embraced pluralist, multicultural societies. No such problem exists in the Middle East or Southern Asia where to lampoon religion is punishable by death (except Christianity which is seen as fair game).

  2. Ho Ho, "I Charles" indeed! Be careful or you'll become Charles I and we all know what happened to him!
    I think you're right about the Middle East and I wonder if it has to do with our notions of progress compared to theirs. We think we're developing towards a new, better world. Many people there believe the ideal 'time' came earlier and now we're living after the 'fall'. It's a very different way of envisaging the world and possibly an irreconcilable one.