Free Speech, the Media and the Roots of Violence

Issue 289
March/April 2015
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Free Speech, the Media and the Roots of Violence
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Cover: The Red Bench by Mina Braun www.minabraun.com

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The attacks in Paris raise far more questions than those about free speech.

What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” – Hannah Arendt

The brutal deaths at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have rightly drawn international solidarity for the victims and their families, as well as concern for the wellbeing of those who speak openly on political issues. It is impossible to mitigate the horror of this event, or condone it, but at the same time such a tragedy brings to the fore once again the deeper issues of free speech and the responsibility of the media, as well as an opportunity to reconsider some underlying causes of extremism.

Woven into the concept of free speech is that one can say whatever one wishes, no matter how outlandish, and if this is cloaked within a semblance of dignified language or, at least, basic literacy or artistic representation, then anything goes. We have an intellectual and moral right to criticise, to ridicule, to poke fun at, to highlight what we imagine to be the essential nature of the problem, no matter what the consequences. And this we should be able to do in spite of or within the apparent political climate.

There are no limits. Religious founders are lampooned by writers and satirists along with political leaders and movements, making correlations that may or may not exist between politics and spiritual beliefs. Of course, religion has always been manipulated by politicians and clergy to attain political and military objectives, serving as a vehicle for their ambitions. And because religion, and with it mythology, speaks to the more unconscious elements of humanity, to the invisible or mysterious forces of life, religious references are deeply felt and are woven into all questions of mortality, morality and human vulnerability and hence are useful in igniting fear and subjugating or manipulating social groups.

Let us think for a moment of the pseudo-Germanic mythology orchestrated by the Third Reich: how it rallied the German people to a common violent cause. Were the Teutonic myths in themselves responsible for aggression? In Serbia both religious identity and a corrupted version of the defeat of Prince Lazar on the battlefield with the Turks 500 years earlier were twisted to gain compliance with nationalist territorial aims. In reality, in both cases foundations for Fascist enterprises actually rested on ruined economies.

The media can be complicit in advancing prejudice and violent agendas. Before and during the Bosnian War, nationalist media spread stories to ignite hate and propel the aims of a greater Serbia. In Rwanda, certain journalists played a crucial role in supporting widespread atrocities, and at least one has since been indicted for war crimes. During the Second World War, Jews were ridiculed by the German media, portrayed in grotesque caricatures, as were the Japanese by the US, and vice versa. African Americans have over centuries been demeaned in the supremacist press.

By comparison, Charlie Hebdo is an independent, secular, anarchistic voice and, upon first viewing, its offending covers and content may seem light and ribald and incapable of drawing such ire, until we recall the current climate. There are terrible tensions in the Islamic world. Tensions that historically began with colonialism and have been escalated by unchecked corporate and political interests – globalisation on the march – have directly contributed to the rise of undemocratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, and have produced within Islamic groups extremists who manipulate Islam to their own goals and draw the disenfranchised into their service. But will satirising Muhammad – or, more aptly, Islam, especially if there exist superficial perceptions of its underlying values and its current political implications – contribute to widening understanding of the fundamental global problems, or will it elicit more extremism?

France has a robust history of potent political satire and polemic, both admirable and not. Molière, Voltaire, Montaigne, Tocqueville, Anatole France and Alfred Jarry are among myriad thinkers whose insights have nourished generations of French and non-French people alike. However, remembering the depiction of racial prejudice of the Dreyfus affair, it is important to keep in mind that the act of lampooning may be interpreted by its targets as a pointedly aggressive act. We are clever because we are capable of satire and irony, but these can humiliate, serving as a brutal knife, and when symbolically portrayed they can cut deeply, penetrating the unconscious, and thus may elicit irrational responses. In effect, we counter violent acts with intellectual violence. We strike back and may thereby wittingly or unwittingly contribute to the mayhem.

At the root of global suffering and acts of terror resides a pervasive class divide, an elitism, and with this all the injustices of exceptionalism. How many years can people endure being marginalised, disenfranchised, excluded, suspended between social spheres within their own country, whether it be at peace, as in France, or within a conflict zone, as in Iraq, where regional and international interests have annihilated populations, pillaged resources, manipulated internal politics, created and funded militant groups, destroyed infrastructures, poisoned environments, reduced economies to ruins, and shown blatant disregard for existing cultures and been busily at work dismantling them? After all, with no intact or stabilised reference points to the past, how can a culture journey forward?

What would we do were we subjected to extremes of poverty, hopelessness, political humiliation, marginalisation and futility, as the people of more and more societies experience? I imagine we would rise up to protest and, if our expectations were repeatedly frustrated, we might try to strike back, as is happening.

Until all human beings attend to the very real problems of existence in a universal way, allowing each person a dignified life, until we each admit our role in benefiting from the status quo at the expense of the suffering of others and the destabilisation of the planet, until we are able to embrace our own responsibility, then each one of us remains culpable of ethical malfeasance. Until we admit that we are in fact complicit, through our silence and thoughtlessness, in a universal aggression upon and exploitation of cultures and the Earth, I doubt much progress will be made. Tragically, further violence may ensue, and globally many more, as is happening now in Nigeria, will be touched by physical aggression, war, environmental catastrophe, and the spread of poverty and mass migration. Can such a future be prevented? Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Nonviolent Communication, gave us a clue when he said that violence is the tragic expression of an unmet need.

The media has amassed enormous influence. But with this influence comes a responsibility that can at times be neglected. This is the responsibility to the future, and with it comes the need to reflect deeply on the pulse of the times and consider the effects of information released to the public. Will it illumine the situation, or will it simply just add to the confusion, the chaos and the violence and to the spectacle of politics that often replaces actual social insight? This is difficult and complex to prejudge, requiring a certain sagacity, but it is something to continually revisit.

The people of Paris have been shocked, but are on their feet. Metros have been stalled in tunnels, buses rerouted, police killed. There have been shoot-outs and the deaths of hostages and suspected assailants. Though calmer for the moment, the city remains on red alert, as is the rest of France.

Both French and European Muslims and Jews are vulnerable. Xenophobia, already prevalent throughout Europe, has strengthened. This has resulted in rising numbers – 15,000 expected this year – of French Jews leaving their home country, seeking safety elsewhere, thus joining an exodus started four years earlier. Since the murders, there have been attacks on mosques, threats to French and Belgian synagogues, the vandalism of a Jewish graveyard in eastern France, and shootings in Denmark. Anti-Muslim rallies have been held in Germany, though with a greater assembly of those supportive of Islamic German citizens. In England, Muslim schoolchildren are exposed to bullying and ridicule. Troops have been sent to protect religious and community sites in Europe.

France has launched a campaign against antisemitic expression and the condoning of terrorism, and has made arrests, including one conviction, and the anti-Zionist comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala stood trial in early February and awaits judgement. A French carrier has been deployed to the Middle East, the French parliament has voted to extend the ISIS bombing campaign, and extremists are being rooted out throughout Europe. Though understanding the need of France, and hence Europe, to take precautions and make a strong reprisal, we might ask whether these steps will be fruitful in creating a more secure world and promoting understanding.

Nearly 4 million people assembled on 11 January this year in a stunning show of solidarity throughout France, with almost 2 million in Paris. As if to mock the serious concerns of French citizens and their stand against aggression, European and other global leaders who led the silent vigil in Paris had amongst them those engaged in squelching freedom of expression through the persecution or silencing of journalists and dissidents and in serving violent agendas.

There is so much more to the story, as there always is: a great deal more than extremists attacking a progressive but perhaps belligerent news group formerly obscure to the rest of the world and catapulted into fame by terrible events and media support. Soon after the attack, an edition of Charlie Hebdo was released, 7 million copies strong, in four languages (followed by more recent editions), with covers and interior ready to offend or unite. In response churches have been burned and people injured or killed in Niger, a massive rally of citizens in Chechnya and irate demonstrators in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Gaza are demanding deference for their religion (one major foundation of their cultures and of their capacity to endure), and there have been apologies from France and the breaking of diplomatic ties. Shall we ask them, as we must reconsider ourselves, is Charlie Hebdo heroic or a provocateur, and are our needs for unimpeded expression greater than their need for respect? And can we understand that those who protest may not agree, and may not hold in the highest regard the attachment of one country, in this case France, to a particular interpretation of principles of freedom of speech exercised at their expense, when they have suffered and continue to suffer for the right to exist? Are they not asking to be included in the conversation?

There are other heroes: those who must endure the struggle first-hand in repressive societies around the Earth. Do we have the courage, the same daring strength as the French, to stand with and for them? From a humanist perspective, nous sommes ceux qui souffrent. We are those who suffer. It is the hope of many that new methods of diplomacy and compassionate dialogue followed by just action and compromise be utilised to resolve differences and inequalities, as violence is never an answer. Martin Luther King said: “Unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the last word in reality.”

Perhaps one optimistic moment came at the end of January in Brussels, at the EU meeting for the prevention of terror, a meeting that emphasised cooperation with Arab countries rather than placing blame, and addressing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and, in the long term, the root causes of extremism. This would be a monumental task and would require much soul searching and the sincere adjustment of priorities. But the question remains: are these goals reachable within the existing framework of profound political and economic disparities?

The targeted killings in Paris have brought to the attention of the world the injustices fermenting within French society. The social battlefield that is France, and by extension Europe, is now in clear view, and with it, once again, the battlefield that is the world.

Though at first it may not seem so on the surface, this is about more than freedom of speech. We are being asked to review the existing global conditions of liberty, equality and fraternity, values in which France historically has led the way, and hopefully will again by courageously revisiting its social policies. The media is always at its best when pledging its service to these values.

A version of this article is published in Truthdig: www.truthdig.com

Barbara Soros is a long-time student of Buddhist philosophy and comparative religion and has worked in the fields of human rights, reconstruction after war and traumatic recovery. She has written for children and for the theatre and is working on a book of intimate reflections on post-war life.

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