Our topic for this post is ‘freedom of speech’. You will often hear it said “in a democracy, obviously there should be freedom of speech, it’s just common sense”. Yet there is not a single democracy where there are not laws limiting freedom of speech— laws against libelous remarks, laws against hate speech, laws against verbal threats of various sorts. In other words, there are no democracies where there is an absolutely unfettered right to freedom of speech, nor should there be. While we are at it, how about a few laws that ban Isis videos on the internet? That would be good as well. The Chinese may be too restrictive, but they are not entirely wrong in limiting what can show up on someone’s personal computer in a country. Of course, even saying something like this prompts fears in the heartland of more regulations on our freedoms from Big Brother. Frankly, I don’t think we should capitulate to those fears. My concern in this post has to do with when satire and ridicule crosses the line in regard to someone’s religion. Obviously, this question was raised by the recent massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and again in Denmark in Copenhagen recently. The latter was prompted by the depiction of Mohammed as a dog.
As Western culture has become less and less Christian, it has also become less and less civil. There has been a coarsening of the culture, and one effect of that is the complete abandonment of respect for people’s religious beliefs. I’m not just talking about respect for Christian beliefs, for it also involves in the West and in an increasingly pluralistic world, respect for the beliefs of Jews, and Muslims, and others as well. It would be my judgment that while there is never a rationale or excuse for terrorism, there is also no place for ridiculing someone’s basic religious beliefs.
Satire is not merely critical engagement or critique of a worldview, if it crosses the line of criticizing the excesses or abuses of religious belief into crass ridiculing of the belief itself. Then that is more than just a bridge too far. Charlie Hebdo crossed that line a long time ago, as did the artist in question in Copenhagen. Again, nothing justifies the violence done against the satirists, but when satire crosses the line of respect for other people’s cherished beliefs that ceases to be funny, or proper satire. Satire is meant to point out foibles, hypocrisy, excesses. It’s perfectly fine to ridicule, for example terrorism done in the name of Christ, who was anti-violence in general. It is not o.k. to depict the prophet Mohammed as a dog, a prophet whom millions and millions of persons not only revere but believe would repudiate the sort of things Isis is now doing.