Within hours of the bloodshed in Paris, large numbers of people had gathered in major cities across Europe in protest at what they saw as being an attack on a fundamental European human right: freedom of expression, a pillar of democracy. This theme was eclipsed by the theme of ‘unity’ in the course of mass marches attended by leaders from across the continent a few days later.
I had some difficulty in seeing what the point of the protests targeting freedom of expression in the immediate aftermath of the killings was. Who was the intended recipient of the message – al-Qaida in Yemen? If so, the protesters would be well advised to save their breath to cool their broth.
There is a legal ring to the phrase ‘freedom of expression’, especially when the word ‘right’ precedes it. The irony of the situation is that Western parliaments have been passing laws over the past couple of decades that severely restrict freedom of expression – so-called ‘hate speech’ laws – with hardly a murmur of protest except from the vilified right of politics. Of course there is no such thing as absolute freedom of expression, and never has been; incitement to violence has long been on the no-no list. But when one sees speech or other forms of expression (cartoons, for instance) deemed to be ‘insulting’ or ‘denigrating’ mentioned in criminal statutes, alarm bells should start to ring. In Holland – a country where ‘insulting a group’ is a crime – Geert Wilders is facing prosecution for ‘inciting racial hatred’ because his audience in a café started chanting “Fewer! Fewer!” when he asked them whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccan immigrants – an immigrant group way overrepresented in crime figures – living in their neighbourhoods. President Chirac was hardly defending freedom of expression when he said in the wake of the Danish cartoons saga, “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.” Charlie Hebdo was as good as banned in the UK. What it comes down to is that one is censored, or may even be prosecuted, for ‘hate speech’ without there being any explicit or implied call to violence for expressing an unfashionable opinion about a politically sensitive issue. Such as immigration or multiculturalism policies, for instance.
A common argument used by lefty ideologues against freedom of expression is that nobody has a right to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, or similar. But if there is indeed a fire starting and the caller was raising the alarm, s/he is off the hook. Where things become tricky is if the caller sincerely believed there to be a fire starting – in the theatre analogy, perhaps there were wisps of cold air coming from under the stage which s/he thought to be smoke. There was a mad rush to the exits, and some people got hurt. The guilt of the caller depends on what his/her intentions were – the mens rea element of most criminal prosecutions. If s/he can convince the court that the intention was to avert harm rather than cause it, s/he will probably get off. I would apply the same reasoning to someone accused of non-PC utterances who sincerely believes that society is falling apart and that the butt of the words complained of is a leading cause of that disintegration – they sincerely believe that there is a ‘fire’ in the ‘theatre’ and are warning people about it. But the ‘lack of intent’ defence for ‘hate speech’ crimes is at best a shaky one.
The tendency nowadays is to criminalise expression that may be ‘offensive’. Excuse me, ‘offensive’ to whom? As Salman Rushdie put it, there is no right to not be offended. The ‘reasonable person’ test – i.e. speech or another form of expression that would be deemed offensive by an ordinary ‘reasonable person’ – is not much use here. The ‘reasonable man’ (as it used to be called) test may have made sense many years ago in a largely monocultural society the overwhelming majority of the citizens of which subscribed to common values and social norms, but the ‘reasonable person’ is impossible to define in a multicultural/multimorality hotchpotch in which minorities are encouraged to maintain beliefs and practices that set them apart from others. There is moreover a discernible element of selective morality here – as a White heterosexual male of a socially conservative bent, my claiming to be offended counts for nothing (in fact it is likely to be deemed ‘offensive’ for me to claim to be offended!).
Let’s go back to the bare facts. What happened on 7 January is that three French citizens of Northern African extraction gunned down ten staff members of a periodical that had satirised the Prophet Mohammed and two police officers, one of whom was calmly murdered in cold blood when he was already lying wounded in the street. Two of them, brothers, were known to be in cahoots with militant Islamists – one had clandestinely travelled to Yemen to link up with al-Qaida there – and had received military training in terrorist camps. One had already been in trouble with the law in 2008 for recruiting young men to fight with terrorist militias. The two were on US and UK ‘no fly’ lists. The day after the attack, the youngest member of the trio – an 18-year-old – turned himself in. The two brothers later died in a shoot-out with police. In the meantime, a French citizen of sub-Saharan African origin who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, and his girlfriend (a French citizen again of Northern African descent), created diversions first by murdering a young policewoman and then by taking hostages in a supermarket, four of whom they killed, before the man was shot dead by police. The girlfriend scarpered and has not been located.
I’m really not sure where ‘freedom of expression’ fits into all this, except that the assailants obviously didn’t believe in it. So why the knee-jerk response of displays of undying loyalty to the principle of freedom of expression? I have no doubt this was a genuine sentiment on the part of many protesters, but I am highly sceptical when I hear moralistic prattle about freedom of expression from people who support clamping down on that ostensibly sacrosanct freedom through laws to quell open discussion and debate about ideologically charged social issues and detect a red herring here. A couple of days later, Hollande sneaked the word ‘pluralism’ into his proselytising about the “values of the Republic”. By the time of the mass rallies that followed, freedom of expression had taken a back seat.
As far as I am concerned, the Charlie Hebdo massacre had little to do with freedom of expression and a lot to do with the downsides of immigration and multiculturalism policies that the self-styled cultural and political elite have foisted upon us. It is those issues that I want to see on the public agenda – without the spectre of sanction arising from those anti-freedom-of-expression laws that the ruling elite have imposed hovering over the discussion. The babble about ‘freedom of expression’ – anathema to the PC-clique as that is – is a smokescreen. Be not fooled.