On the Paris attacks, freedom of expression and human rights

Freedom of expression and civilization-clashes are not appropriate characterizations of what has happened in Paris, argues Pearl Eliadis.
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January 20, 2015
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The shootings at Charlie Hebdo have once again placed "the West" against the rest, facing each other, newly bloodied and doubly belligerent. In this confrontation, the West is cast as a defender of liberty and free speech, the other as the defender of fundamentalist Islamism.

It is business as usual for the clash-of-civilizations and I-told-you-so brigade. 

The reflexive juxtaposition of freedom and barbarism offers an easy but false certainty about both the problem and its solution. Freedom of expression and civilization-clashes are not appropriate characterizations of what has happened, nor a rational approach to addressing these complex issues.

Calmer voices remind us that the West is a variegated space, with a history of religious persecution and conflict stretching back over centuries. Our political leaders have not always been such stalwart champions of free speech.

Indeed, freedom of expression is a relatively recent arrival in the history of ideas, and is highly selective and malleable. French authorities banned the predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, in the 1960s, and then again just before the creation of Charlie Hebdo in 1970. Days after the hostage taking at a kosher grocery in Paris in 2015, anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested by the French authorities for expressing his views in a Facebook posting purportedly sympathizing with the Paris attacks.

The clash-of-civilizations discourse offers an equally murky perspective, one that fosters a self-fulfilling and self-renewing cycle of conflict. There is a long and insidious tradition of placing civilizations at loggerheads using the trope of heroic patriots, unflinching and alone, facing dangerous, imminent and/or bloody invasions by uncivilized others. Huntington's TheClash of Civilizations or more recent polemics like Mark Steyn’s America Alone, did not invent the genre. In the 1930s, anti-immigration and eugenics enthusiast Lothrop Stoddard wrote Lonely America, opening with a portrait of America personified as an isolated and troubled defender of civilized values:

On the summit of the nation’s watchtower stands a solitary figure. Silent and inscrutable, his gaze sweeps the wide expanses of the outer world. And, as he gazes, his eyes grow troubled; his brow knits in lines of introspective thought. What does he see, this symbolic personification of our country?

Well, he sees many bad things, each one worse than the last: menacing Russians, the “swarming races” of the “Orient” and other assorted dangers.  Lonely America exhorts the defenders of America to stand firm against foreigners, feminists, and those dangerous “others” by waking up and grasping the extent of the dangers that surround them.

More than eight decades later, this type of language is all — and still — depressingly familiar.

When The Economist ran its post-Charlie Hebdo cover with a (white) fist holding a bloody pencil, another personified image of an isolated but defiant defender of liberty was again propagated to millions.

The truth is that Western countries are highly selective about what speech is shielded, while free speech proponents sometime rush to the barricades to protect speech that does not merit legal protection.

We need to be able to distinguish between speech that genuinely incites hatred and speech that may be offensive but does not rise to the level that justifies limits. Freedom of expression is not simply a philosophical inquiry that operates in splendid isolation; it is part of an exercise that engages with core values that include equality, freedom of religion, and multiculturalism. There is extensive case law in Canada about how to reconcile these rights and the courts have consistently upheld reasonable limits on free speech for a quarter century. Political cartoons from mainstream and satirical publications have been the subject of complaints in Canada, but never successfully.

We should be able to distinguish between cultural and religious practices that are demonstrably inconsistent with human rights and those that we simply do not like. Headscarves and crosses mainly fall into the latter category, at least in Quebec. Harmful traditional practices and cruel punishments fall into the former.

We know, or should know, that violent individuals who hide behind the protection of a great monotheistic religion are imposters and criminals, not proponents of religious rights or freedom.

Ensuring that our society’s response to violence is measured, proportional and rational depends on an ongoing commitment to respecting human rights. It means that nation states should aim to inculcate a sense of belonging that not only accommodates diverse cultures and religions, but protects them within a human rights framework. It is easy to dehumanize people as threats by painting them as having collective characters, cultures or practices so debased, barbaric and disgusting that they do not merit tolerance, let alone human rights. Ultimately, there is one real lesson for any civilization that aspires to that name - especially in the face of tragic events like the Charlie Hebdo shootings or the Ottawa shootings in 2014.

Human rights legislation and the institutions that protect them, including human rights commissions and tribunals and of course the courts, offer an important bulwark against state excesses, but also against the temptation to behave in precisely the way that would ensure the final victory of those who would cast “the West” as a failed civilization.

Pearl Eliadis expands on these ideas and others in her recent book, Speaking Out on Human Rights: Debating Canada’s Human Rights System, Tuesday, Jan. 20, at 5 p.m., at the University Club of Montreal.