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freedom-of-speech-156029_1280-488x700 This whole Charlie Hebdo thing is pretty deep if you stop to think about it. Of course most don’t treat it as such. It has become a knee-jerk reaction for most. Jon Stewart pointed this out when he suggested that some countries who have championed free speech and press, actually arrest plenty of speech in their own countries.

We are all in danger, it seems to me, of being hypocrites, myself included. I confess right now that I have participated in at least two attempts to squelch the free speech of others when it came vile bigoted hate speech against the President.

It’s not nearly as easy an idea as it might appear to be.

A friend of mine posted a link to statements made by the Pope. He suggested that free speech must be protected, but that,   “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Francis did not expound on what should be the consequences of such inappropriate speech, but he warned that the attacks in Paris can fairly be expected from such talk.

I tend to disagree with Francis here, at least insofar as he claims that the ends justify the means. If he suggests that we should ban hate speech vis-a-vis religion if it would engender violence, then this leaves us under the thumb of every radicalized person about any issue he or she defines as “religious”. Where would it stop?

I am aware that all speech is not protected. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said in Schenck v. United States, 249 US 47 (1919), you are not free to yell fire in a crowded theatre. Forever after we have lived with the standard of “clear and present danger” as the bellwether of when speech crosses a line to incite lawlessness.

To succumb to the threat of violence if you “say those things” invites the standard (a difficult one at best) to be flipped to be defined by the one threatening the violence. I have no doubt that the Pope spoke in the general, and as he put it in a friendly manner not meant to be a papal statement of substance.

Yet, of course, those inclined to think little and shallowly about the subject go off the deep end. In the wake of the Paris shootings, Oxford University Press, certainly one of the more respected publishing houses in the world, announced that it would no longer use the words pig, sausage, or pork-related products in its children’s literature. This as a means to not offend Jewish and Muslim readers.

They have been not only roundly ridiculed for such a decision, but criticized as well by the reputable press.

In the post I cited at the beginning, one read the expected Christian whine, “The only ones we have to be kind to are the militant, extremist muslims who might behead us. All the other religions are fair game.” Such rhetoric is of course, both nonsensical and off point.

In fact the world community has stood up very clearly and said, as offensive as Charlie Hebdo is to most people at one time or another, they have he right to say what they wish about Muslims or anybody else for that matter. In a country that is overwhelmingly Christian, (Pew estimates that 78.4% of all Americans define themselves as Christian) it is predictable that the religious right will complain that it is a victim of persecution!

This all suggests that at least some of the Je suis Charlie is nothing more than acclamation that the “right” religion is being attacked. Should Charlie Hebdo attack, (as they of course have done and no doubt will continue to do) Christianity, these self-defined freedom proclaimers will be calling for Charlie’s head.

Some things it seems to me need to be cleared up.

Speech is speech, and unless it reaches the “clear and present danger” standard, ought under no circumstances be prohibited. Westboro Baptist must be allowed to spew it’s hate, as well as the KKK and various right-wing evangelicals and their “burn the Quran”. Atheists who call believers names fall into the category as well.

Speaking against a religion is not persecution of that religion. Persecution involves state action to suppress a religion because of its existence. That does not mean that it is right or to be championed. It is to be marched against, spoken against, and shunned in the most clear way. But it must not be prevented.

When we speak of “not offending” another religion, we are again talking about state action. It is improper to set up creches in public places such as town property, because that is the government speaking then. It is quite proper for a private establishment decorate as it wishes. This is I think where people get most confused.

When a store decides to use the phrase “happy holidays” they are not persecuting Christians, they are choosing to respect all their patrons, Christians and others as well. Similarly if a store chooses to say Merry Christmas or Happy Kwanzaa that is their choice as well.

While I see Oxford Press’s point, I think they have stepped over the line. Some attempts at political correctness are simply absurd. Small children have no clue the point being made, and who are really addressed are parents, who are surely capable of explaining to their young if they think it necessary.

We simply begin down a dangerous path when we start deciding that certain types of speech are not allowed. In Germany for instance, I believe it is still a crime to speak out in denial of the Holocaust. While there might have once been reason to do such a thing in the raw years immediately after WWII, I’m not sure it is still valid. Many countries have liberal prohibitions of speech that attacks the state. These too are wrong, as most of us would agree.

We must never forget that at one time, the most innocuous of things today was then blasphemous. People were arrested for speaking about all sorts of things that threatened the state (religious or secular) either directly or indirectly. We have come a long way, in most of the civilized world. If we resort to making it illegal to speak our minds about anything beyond what threatens life itself, we run the risk of turning backward down a path that leads to dictatorship, repression, and tyranny.

Those on the Right, who so vociferously espouse “our freedoms” should be the first in line to defend speech. But of course, they have are not. But then, true patriots reside elsewhere on the spectrum, as we all suspect.

 

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