The headline in the article in The Age this week ‘Muslims torn over honouring of Hebdo’ reprinted from The Washington Post struck a strong chord with me even though I am not a Muslim; indeed, I am Jewish. Since the terrorist attack on the magazine’s office in Paris there have been thousands of words penned in support of the magazine and more significantly about the inviolable right of freedom of speech and expression. Idealistically, I absolutely concur with ensuring that right remains enshrined as much as it can be in this world, but realistically, I have been confronting myself as to the democratic application of that right in a world where different religious, ethnic, sexual and even ageist peoples need to co-exist peacefully and tolerantly alongside each other. I am torn about honouring Hebdo too; certainly, I condemn all acts of terrorism and slaughter wherever and on whatever basis in this world, but I also believe fervently in people’s once again, inviolable right to adhere to their own individual religious faith, presuming their beliefs do not harm others. Hebdo’s satirical depiction of Muhammad that supposedly inflamed the massacre raises many questions for me about satire, lampooning others and moreover, 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia that makes it ‘an offence to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ people on the grounds of race or ethnicity. Reality is that offending, insulting, humiliating and intimidating people goes far beyond just issues of race or ethnicity.
This country has a Disability Discrimination Act, a Sex Discrimination Act and even a Commissioner for the Aged, yet every day I contend that millions of Australians are indeed subject to insulting, offensive and humiliating words and behaviour; albeit often disguised and shrouded by our oft delusional commitment to the democratic right of not just freedom of speech and expression, but more importantly perhaps, the whole notion of free choice; to employ who we like, irrespective of their age, gender, colour, or religion. Indeed, we applaud the supposed socio-economic and political changes for women in this country over the past few decades, the supposed greater acceptance of gender sexual diversity as well as the supposed steps forward for mentally and physically disabled people, to name a few. Another article in The Age suggested that we are a great multicultural society with tolerance and safety for people the article raising the question: How do you best protect freedom of speech, a critically important feature of our society, while recognising the need to protect people from vilification and potentially violent provocation? Indeed, the headline on this article was ‘Tolerance and respect for difference are firmly embedded in multicultural Australia’ – Let’s have free speech, but keep the safety valves.
The media around the world has been singled out by various columnists as timid and cowardly for its hypocrisy in not publishing images that might now expose them to Islamist retribution and are too bloated with self-delusion to admit that’s the case. But the more significant issue for me is where you draw the line between harmful publication and freedom, to remember my university days reading of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty where if I recall accurately, he wrote about freedom as long as it did not cause harm to others. Freedom is an emotive word in so many ways implicit with so much of what we cherish and hold dear in our so-called democracies, but it is relative as are so many other issues, perhaps even more so now where terrorism and mass slaughter are justified by, one could argue – the freedom of self expression – albeit violently of course and indeed, harming millions. So the ‘split’ I feel intellectually in my mind is about allowing people the right to fight against oppression for self-determination and freedom of speech, expression and choice but at the same time, I don’t want to see that fight harming others. There are many people fighting for these so-called rights of self-determination and freedom from oppression – the Palestinians, the IRA, albeit less than in the 70s and the Tamils et al. But violence doesn’t seem to change their reality and of course, violence just tragically too often, begets more violence. I have written before about being a pacifist in my teens only to change my mind because I have understood or realised that some totalitarian dictatorships, and even so-called democracies, are beyond diplomacy. Indeed, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the West going to war against Germany and Japan. Moreover, in France, a Paris prosecutor opened an investigation against an anti-Semitic comedian for a Facebook page post about the man who killed four Jewish people in a Kosher market. He also apparently in his comedy show featured an explicit skit mocking the Holocaust and was banned last year for inciting hate. The comedian wrote in a second Facebook post that he was ‘no different from a Charlie (Hebdo)’. Also, in Australia, a highly respected intelligent newspaper was recently lambasted by the Press Council for publishing a cartoon caricaturing religious Jews saying it had caused “greater offence to readers’ sensibilities than was justifiable in the public interest,” praising at the same time the paper’s ‘prominent, extensive and closely reasoned apology’. For me, there appears to be no difference about satirising Muhammad or the Jews; both are inflammatory and full of underlying hate and cruelty; equally horrifying and deplorable.
Maybe it could be argued in the defence of freedom of expression that we are all fair game when it comes to satire, but the reality is that many governments in the West still feel ashamed and guilty about the Holocaust, with Goebbel’s vicious caricatures still alive for millions of anti-Semites around the world. Surely, we must feel comparable respect for the nearly one billion Muslims around the world who also cherish and hold dear their Prophet, as do millions of Christians for Jesus. Similarly, for women, SGD people, the disabled, the blacks, maybe too some politicians et al. But would that put cartoonists out of work?
I do not have any answers for these issues except that to undermine another’s belief, when that’s peaceful, tolerant and harmless, is to undermine us all in ensuring the freedoms, however relative, we mostly enjoy in Australia today. It is indeed at times very difficult, if not impossible, to prove in court you have been discriminated against because of disability, gender. sexual preference, colour, or religion; it is often subtle and subverted by our commitment to freedom of speech, expression and choice, but it is implicit on all of us to appreciate that while we embrace difference on the surface perhaps, it is often underpinned by a fear of that difference at the same time. Otherwise, why is discrimination so difficult to prove in a court of law? It seems too often that smart, clever barristers “play’ havoc with words; people’s actions so often sublimated in a cloak of secrecy where it’s their word against yours. And who can really afford the huge expense of going to court? Overtly of course, we like to think we are a tolerant and harmonious society, but for too many people, a ticking time bomb resides within them, exploding in an epidemic of family violence, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual deviance and abuse, mental illness and a myriad of issues that thankfully, are written about and published in the media. What we can do to silence the tick is another issue entirely. It appears however that when 17 people die in terrorist attacks that elicits international outrage, grief and calls for freedom of expression and speech to be unfettered; where is the same international feeling for the thousands, if not millions of people, dying every year because of family violence, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual assault and mental illness? Are there double standards about not just who dies, but in what circumstance, and why? So many of these thousands of people dying are just as innocent as the editorial staff, police etc who died in the massacre in Paris. And it’s interesting they use the word ‘massacre’ in that context, not the thousands of people, men, women and children who die in their other situations I have suggested. Aren’t they too, massacres? Our tolerance and embrace of difference is too often fragile and vulnerable not just to the exploits of satire, but to the complex conundrums of our social milieu where even road rage, initially often verbal insults and sledging, escalates into physical violence. Even Pope Francis said that if someone insulted his mother, there’d be a punch. And I’m no Catholic! Ethicist Paul Komesaroff was quoted in one of The Age’s articles as saying that to taunt and push people to the limits because they are unable to defend themselves or express themselves should be regarded as ‘reprehensible’. But I can only wonder who are these people he is talking about as so many people cannot defend themselves in a court of law as the cost is prohibitive. Furthermore, expressing yourself, even when it is not necessarily violent or dangerous (and there’s a word for you, what one person regards as dangerous another person can regard as safe), is not always accepted by others. I know that only too well after what I said to my sister and even just walked away. I even once told her I don’t like her. That was the truth; her tragedy that she couldn’t accept my rejection of her and I’m mentally sick! But Komesaroff seems to be implying these people will do something harmful and violent yet, on a daily basis as I’ve suggested, so many people are pushed to their limit by living not just in poverty, experiencing discrimination and humiliation, but by so many factors we don’t understand. Family violence, drug and alcohol addiction and sexual assaults exist across the socio-economic spectrum as I’ve researched and written stories over the years about all of these things. Have the perpetrators of these behaviours been ‘pushed’ beyond the limit of sane, rational and intelligent behaviour? If so, why? Are they a new form of urban terrorist, albeit against themselves as well as others? Why some people are radicalised to violent extremism I cannot answer, but one only has to listen to Ban-Ki Moon and Obama among others to realise that no one has the panacea to stop terrorism. Maybe we all need to shut the fuck up, stop publishing anything at all, and take off to a desert island on our own, where we can be ‘safe’ in the knowledge that no one is there to say, do, suggest or show us any creative images or words that may offend, insult or humiliate us. Hopefully, there’s enough food to live on, and the sun shines 24/7. It is a fine line we all walk on! Finally, the Grand Mufti of Australia was reported in another article in The Age saying that the Hebdo magazine depiction of Muhammad was not about freedom of speech and expression at all. Let him have the last word: “We should protect ourselves from the Epidemic of hate”.