Within limited constraints (obscenity, hate-speak and libel), freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. And new ideas benefit society; as John Stuart Mill observed, “mankind cannot be reminded too often that there was once a man called Socrates” (put to death by public vote in Athens for voicing unpopular opinions).
This principle is an important part of the public debate following recent tragic events in France.
Five years ago, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre following its publication of cartoons which deeply offended Muslims throughout the world, Woking People of Faith strongly condemned “acts which defiled both God and our shared humanity, all the more so as they were shamefully enacted under the banner of religious belief”.
“As People of Faith”, its statement continued, “we work in harmony and mutual respect with each other to bear witness to our shared values and to carry them into the wider communities of which we are part. Working together in this way, and appreciating each other as individuals, prevents the easy prejudices founded on mutual ignorance.”
Clearly, Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish the offensive cartoons. But were they right to do so?
I think not.
At the heart of inter-faith work is mutual respect and tolerance. That’s why evangelism – seeking converts from other faiths – is wrong: it’s effectively saying “my faith is superior to yours”. That’s why, at Woking People of Faith’s annual dinner, none of us drink alcohol – out of respect for our Muslim colleagues. And that’s why the Jewish sage Hillel said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah (Jewish Law); the rest is the explanation; go and learn."
Very different from Charlie Hebdo publishing offensive cartoons to the world was the French schoolmaster Samuel Paty. In a lesson about civics (and I wish British schools had this topic higher in their curricula), he brought out the cartoons as a basis for discussion. He was absolutely right to do so, and died a martyr for freedom of speech.
Free speech inevitably entails voicing controversial sentiments which some may find offensive. And there is no right not to be offended. But there is an obligation on all of us to be considerate in both what we say, and how we respond if we are offended.
Philip Goldenberg, member of the Jewish faith
Date: Monday 2nd November 2020