Offensive Freedom

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. | Photo by Adrian Wyld / CP

Justin Trudeau issued a statement on the day before Halloween regarding the slaughter of four people in France at the hands of Islamic terrorists. The speech was a solemn affair given the horrible circumstances, but it has also raised some eyebrows. The prime minister condemned the attacks and spoke in solidarity for the slain French citizens, as any decent statesman would.[1] However, his comments on freedom of expression, the driving force behind the killings, did not strike the same chord.

For those that have not seen the news, a teacher by the name of Samuel Paty, was beheaded by an eighteen-year-old extremist on October 16, 2020 for showing caricatures of the prophet Muhammed in a civics class about freedom of expression. In response the French rallied in support of their right to freedom of expression,[2] one of the key principles of the nation.[3] This caused anger across parts of the Muslim world, which provoked the killings of three more French citizens by another terrorist on October 29, 2020, in Nice.[4]

Trudeau paid condolences to the victims, and proffered his support of freedom of expression, but qualified it: “We will always defend freedom of expression,” he said, but added: “But freedom of expression is not without limits… We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.”[5]

There is some truth here. As responsible adults, we should always be careful with our words. It is a sign of a mature person to speak carefully, to think first before speaking, to not bandy about. We should be cognizant that our words hold power, and that to needlessly insult others just because we can is disgraceful. But Trudeau’s comments missed the mark because of the context.

“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” — Rumi

The teacher was beheaded for his lecture on the foundational principal of freedom of expression. Three more died in response to the nation again asserting this right after the beheading. The French are not defending freedom of expression because they are cruel or ignorant, or simply looking to inflame religious conflicts. They are pointing out that in their country, if people so choose, they have the right to express opinions that some find deeply offensive. It is a vital part of their society and democracy as an institution.

In many Western nations, there are thousands of cartoons depicting religious figures, such as Jesus, in all sorts of crude and unpleasant ways. For instance, the wildly popular Family Guy show has Jesus as a returning character, one who is even more of a deviant than most of the show’s reprehensible characters, of which there are many. This undoubtedly causes resentment in parts of the Christian community. However, without this ability to criticize, it would not have been possible for nations like Canada and England to become properly secular. John Stuart Mill covers this in his famous book, On Liberty. He talks about the oppressive silence being demanded by the Church and how this is deeply unhealthy for the people. He states that the citizens must be able to criticize the Church, or any institution, in order to shed light on the issues of the day. If they cannot, then the country can never improve.[6] The French know this and are making it clear they will not be silenced. Trudeau appears to disagree.

Jesus pretending to teach a lesson after getting caught lying to the Griffins in order to sleep with Lois[8]

To state that freedom of expression has limits is to imply that there are times we cannot use it. Mr. Trudeau clarifies this through saying that “We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.”[7] As I stated, this is a fine sentiment, one I agree with, but this is not the context in which to say it. The French lost four members of their society in the pursuit of a completely legitimate use of free speech, but Trudeau appears to be suggesting that the freedom of expression exercised in this situation could be of the arbitrarily offensive flavour. The cartoons that sparked the killings were legitimate criticisms of the three Abrahamic religions, not the ravings of neo-Nazis. They are offensive, but they are not capriciously attacking Muslims. They are criticizing a religion, something that must remain fair game if our societies are to remain on track.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoon that cost Samuel Paty his life placed on full display by the French government | Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Trudeau’s stance can easily be read as saying that perhaps we should not say things that could be offensive, even if the ideas have merit. After all, he specifically mentioned limits to free expression when concerning offensive expression. What was needed in this situation was a full-throated defence of freedom of expression, and then a call for carefulness a week later, but one that did not invoke the idea of limiting freedom of expression in circumstances like these. Trudeau’s remarks fly in the face of those who paid the ultimate price for freedom when they should have been a rallying cry for liberal ideals, ideals he is sworn to protect as the Prime Minster of Canada.

Notes

[1] MSN News. “Free speech has limits, Canada’s Trudeau says.” Accessed November 1, 2020. https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/canada/free-speech-has-limits-canadas-trudeau-says/ar-BB1ayic0?li=AAggNb9.

[2] CNN News. “Samuel Paty beheading: Teacher’s slaying spurs protests across France.” Accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/18/europe/samuel-paty-france-protests/index.html.

[3] Government of France. “Everything you need to know about freedom of expression in France.” Accessed November 3, 2020. https://www.gouvernement.fr/en/everything-you-need-to-know-about-freedom-of-expression-in-france.

[4] Daily Mail. “Pictured: Terror victim beheaded by Tunisian migrant who killed two other worshippers in church rampage + Macron says ‘France is under attack’ + Two more attacks stopped + candlelit vigils held.” Accessed November 3, 2020. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8892233/Multiple-people-stabbed-terrorist-knife-attack-church-Nice.html.

[5] MSN News. “Free speech has limits, Canada’s Trudeau says.” Accessed November 1, 2020. https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/canada/free-speech-has-limits-canadas-trudeau-says/ar-BB1ayic0?li=AAggNb9.

[6] Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd., (no date).

[7] MSN News. “Free speech has limits, Canada’s Trudeau says.” Accessed November 1, 2020. https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/canada/free-speech-has-limits-canadas-trudeau-says/ar-BB1ayic0?li=AAggNb9.

[8] Family Guy. “ The 2000-Year-Old Virgin.” Directed by Joseph Lee and Dominic Bianchi. Written by Seth McFarlane. Fox Broadcasting. Aired December 7, 2014.

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The Principled Self

The Principled Self

A page devoted to exploring topics from first principles, with some creative mixed in.