In the light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, many have, like in the Muhammad Cartoon controversy of 2006 and Pastor Terry Jones’ Koran burning attempt, have raised the absolute right of free speech against ‘Islamo-fascism’. Here’s something to consider.

We talk about the idea of free speech as an absolute right, which at the end of the day is hard to argue against short of incitement to violence. Problem is that most people don’t practice this, nor do we live in a world that does – not even in most liberal democratic societies. Think of how many friendships, romantic or family relationships or workplace relationships we navigate daily. Mostly we don’t speak our full minds, partly out of sensitivity but also out of self preservation. Simply put, it’s better not being seen as a cruel asshole, not upsetting the status quo or getting booted out. Overall, tact is a good thing. So we censor ourselves and choose our language carefully to make others feel better, to climb the professional ladder, and to find and continue satisfyingly sexual or romantic partnerships and friendships.

Since so much of our lives is navigation, as a result we often end up choosing battles where we will run our mouths off without self-censorship, often with far less consequence if our peers find our views agreeable. The more marginalised the group, the more carefully selected the language is, the easier to get away with this free speech. Hence the ability to get away with speaking out against people receiving welfare payments or in this case, Muslims who are hardly in the best position in France, let alone Europe. Free speech, in this case, is more likely when the people are removed from our immediate sphere, and of less consequence. 

For all those who talk about reduction of free speech and PC brigades, you can still have free speech to say as you want, especially if you are considered within the mainstream and speaking against those considered outside.

Free speech is, by default and millennia of thoughtful philosophy, an inalienable right – within reason. Satire is certainly one of the most effective tools against oppression and bigotry. But depends on how you use it and who your target is. People or structures? What kind of people: those in positions of power and influence or those without? If you see your own house isn’t in order, shouldn’t it be considered a greater priority as it affects you more? If the basic legal principle limit to free speech as “not yelling out fire in a crowded theatre”, surely it is similarly harmful in principle to yell “cunt” whether at the family dinner table, in a Twitter feed, or at a crowded mosque. Otherwise the right to be a dick is trumphing the basic right itself.

If you really think free speech is sacred, apply it to every aspect of your life. Otherwise it’s a slippery slope between stubbornness and ending up being that guy – a Kapiti Coast councillor wearing a KKK outfit with blackface underneath.



  1. Hans

    You mentioned self preservation, however when one lacks it they generally aren’t met with capital punishment but at the most insults. freedom of speech is sacred and a lot of people will say a lot of harmful things, but the punishment must fit the crime. This situation is obviously more complicated than the mainstream media is willing to explore.

    • finetoothcolumn

      Certainly nothing will prevent free speech to say arguably hurtful things, and short of threats and violence, the near absolute right of free speech is rooted in democracy. However, I think the best use of free speech is to say challenging things, especially in the face of public ridicule, as well as attacking repression. You’re right that Western policies intervening or backing particular autocratic interests is hypocritical, even contributing to instability and human rights abuses, which is ironic, considering how much we take free speech for granted. Certainly Western behaviour hasn’t created this violence, but together has culminated in the environment where these people can rise. Cheers for commenting!

  2. Hans

    one more thing, the backwardness of the “islamic fundamentalists” is very much rooted in policies that the west, including the French government, have applied to the middle east. The Ayatollah that you have the picture on your page was given asylem in france prior to the Iranian revolution, and Mosadeq, the first Iranian democratic government was overthrew by the CIA.

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