Friday

17th Nov 2017

Opinion

Are we going to stand up for Charlie?

However great in number, the mainstream reactions to past week’s terrorist attacks could, so far, be boiled down to two narratives. Both start by acknowledging that the freedom of speech and expression has been brutally attacked.

Then they diverge along the established paths of European left and right - one stressing the danger of radical Islam, the other warning against the possible surge of islamophobia.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • We don’t all need to be Charlie, as long as we allow a Charlie to exist among us (Photo: Charlie Hebdo)

The overall focus remains on tolerance towards and within Muslim communities in Europe. Free speech itself is overlooked, and the “assault” that happened is seen as little more than a symbolic attack that merits the strongest symbolic response – a massive rally.

In this, we are avoiding a question that we absolutely need to consider: namely, what do these terrorist attacks tell us about the state of free speech in Europe?

Many commentators have criticised the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, pointing out that “no, we’re not all Charlie Hebdo”.

Sure, they’re right – most of us are biased in our criticism, and our humour is limited by our individual taboos. We don’t all need to be Charlie, as long as we allow a Charlie to exist among us.

We can all quietly hiss at the distasteful satirist whose jokes have gone too far, as long as we treasure his tiny, but indispensable role in the liberal-democratic order. And, as such a “flame keeper” of free speech, Charlie is meant to exist on the margin, far from the political mainstream.

So, the question to ask is not “why isn’t the mainstream more like Charlie Hebdo”, but – “why wasn’t the mainstream able to protect Charlie Hebdo”?

Freedom of speech

The Paris attacks should do more than shock us with their barbarism. This is a chance for the political mainstream to reflect on whether it has lost sight of the values for which the victims stood.

This is a moment to realise that the most basic of all our civil liberties – the freedom of speech - is in an alarmingly grave state.

That the process of its degradation has been going on for decades. That, throughout this period, free speech has been attacked from all directions, and that the long-term danger of this continuous, systematic suppression of free speech is, as horrid as this may sound, even greater than that of an occasional armed lunatic.

Yes, the blame is on all sides. Remember the post-9/11 frenzy and the mainstream media’s paranoid expurgation of “unpatriotic” criticism.

The Catholic Church has, in recent times, often tried to censor “insulting” content. So did many other bastions of traditionalism. One barely needs to take a look at the Heads of State marching at the Paris rally to spot the immense hypocrisy of these supposed defenders of liberty in Russia, Turkey or Israel.

That the freedom of expression has too many exploiters and too few admirers in all spheres of the establishment is not a new thing.

But we would be dishonest if we did not admit that, in the past few decades, the single most effective suppressant of liberty has come from the liberal left, through its obsession with political correctness.

Soft censorship

Think of the prohibitive non-legal barriers imposed on those whose opinions are ever so slightly differ from the mainstream orthodoxy: their views are immediately branded as phobic or offensive by hypersensitive cultural minorities.

Think of the general atmosphere that’s been created, in which publishers face restrictive pressures to censor a myriad of views that would have been commonplace as much as a decade ago.

Think of the unreserved concessions to almost any group that screams disrespect, and the bureaucratic lines about the need to foster tolerance, “while recognising the limitations of free speech”.

Anyone who’s ever tried to publish views that in any way challenge the narrative of political correctness will know this experience – hitting the wall of acceptability, dreading if you’ve asked your question in a bad way, or whether it was bad to ask the question at all.

That’s as effective as soft censorship gets.

Look at the growing levels of ideological narrowness in US campuses, or outright political discrimination or in Western academia, where holding conservative views may cost you your job.

Recall, for instance, how even the prospect of a campus debate on abortion policy was offensive enough to a feminist student group, that the University administrators were forced to cancel it.

Seeing that this happened, of all places, at the University of Oxford, shouldn’t we pay more attention to Alasdair Macintyre’s warnings that the Western public sphere has lost its capacity to have an argument about moral issues?

It is not hard to see where this increased readiness to compromise our freedom of expression has gotten us – a society terrified of conflict, willing to make ever greater concessions to appease intolerant radicals and avoid unrest.

A society that, over the years, prioritised almost any sort of comfort to the comfort of liberty, forgetting that all these blessings are themselves derived from it. Now even the threat of leaking Sony executives’ private emails is enough for a faraway nut to dictate what movies we will and won’t watch.

Does this seem like a society that’s got the spine to stand up for Charlie Hebdo before it is too late?

That question has been answered in the bloodiest of ways.

Shall we choose to ignore this predicament, hold a massive rally and focus on dealing with radical Islam? Or shall we pull ourselves together and start paying minimal respects to a piece of liberal-democratic heritage for which twelve people have paid with their lives?

Fedja Pavlovic is a philosophy student at KU Leuven, coming from Montenegro. Send him a tweet at @FedjaPavlovic

Orban demonises immigrants at Paris march

A French press watchdog has highlighted the hypocrisy of some VIPs at Sunday’s march in Paris, while Hungary’s Orban used the event to call for a crackdown on immigration.

Why are liberal democracies not winning the argument?

Unlimited freedom to say whatever one wants, the right to love and marry whomever one likes, a democratic decision-making process - we should not fool ourselves into thinking that these are universally accepted concepts.

Charlie's false friends

Remove the right to offend anyone and you roll back centuries of progress towards free thought, free speech and free societies.

Mind the gap: inequality in our cities

Minimum wages, 'living' wages and a universal basic income are all part of the ongoing mix to find ways to reduce social inequality across the EU.

EU's eastern partnership needs revival

A week before a summit with EU eastern neighbours, Sweden and Poland's foreign ministers propose "a way ahead" for the relationship that is more focused on people's needs.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressAntisemitism in Europe Today: Is It Still a Threat to Free and Open Society?
  2. Counter BalanceNew Report: Juncker Plan Backs Billions in Fossil Fuels and Carbon-Heavy Infrastructure
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic countries prioritise fossil fuel subsidy reform
  4. Mission of China to the EUNew era for China brings new opportunities to all
  5. ACCASmall and Medium Sized Practices Must 'Offer the Whole Package'
  6. UNICEFAhead of the African Union - EU Summit, Survey Highlights Impact of Conflict on Education
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council Calls for Closer Co-Operation on Foreign Policy
  8. Swedish EnterprisesTrilogue Negotiations - Striking the Balance Between Transparency and Efficiency
  9. Access EuropeProspects for US-EU Relations Under the Trump Administration - 28 November 2017
  10. World Vision20 November: Exchange of Views at the EP on Children Affected by the Syria Crisis
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable Growth the Nordic Way: Climate Solutions for a Sustainable Future
  12. EU2017EEHow Data Fuels Estonia's Economy

Latest News

  1. EU agencies and eastern neighbours This WEEK
  2. Germany slams Dutch call for more ambitious EU climate goal
  3. Mind the gap: inequality in our cities
  4. Climate activists 'disappointed' with EU at climate talks
  5. Davis outlines UK vision on Brexit in Berlin
  6. German coalition talks in near collapse
  7. EU to proclaim 'pillar' of social rights in Gothenburg
  8. Lower waste targets still not low enough for EU states

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Step Up Water Management Cooperation
  2. CECEMachinery Industry Calls for Joint EU Approach to Develop Digital Construction Sector
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersMale Business Leaders Gather in Copenhagen to Advance Gender Equality
  4. EnelNo ETS Deal Means It Can Still Be Strengthened
  5. EU2017EEEstonia Anticipates More Digital Cooperation With Sweden
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina Launches Campaign to Protect IPR of Foreign Companies
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Condemns Attacks on Ruta Vanagaite and the Shredding of Her Books in Lithuania
  8. Bio-Based IndustriesDiscover the Future of the Bio-Based Economy. Register Now for the BBI Stakeholder Forum!
  9. European Free AllianceWelcome Catalonia!
  10. UNICEFGrowing Number of Unaccompanied Refugee Children in Greece in Need of Shelter
  11. Counter BalanceNature Destruction Cannot Be Compensated For, Say NGOs
  12. CES - Silicones EuropeSilicones - Enabling the Next Big Leap in Prosthetics and Health