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Freedom of Speech

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I have been troubled over these last several days by the recent events in Paris.  It all feels too familiar.  Have we not been here before and not too long ago?  The fear, anxiety and pain for those directly connected to the victims, for Paris generally is extreme.  Globally, many are unsettled.  I too am unsettled.  And I worry about a world where people seek to settle their differences through the barrel of a gun rather than through other more peaceful means.

But there is another element of this particular event that also warrants our conversation.  The first targets in Paris were the staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.  This newspaper had published comic representations of Islam (as they do of other religions, individuals and institutions) that were perceived by many within and beyond the Muslim community as offensive and hurtful.  Others (whether they support these pictures or not) defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish these pictures for reasons of “freedom of speech”.  France’s long history with satire notwithstanding, freedom of speech can just as easily be a cover for racism or hate.  Even if it is not intended in this way, it can certainly be experienced as such.  Europe should know this of course.  Throughout so much of its pre-Holocaust history, satirical comics mocked Jews.  These comics not only gave voice to anti-Semitism sentiments in Europe, it also legitimized these sentiments, helping to pave the way to the horrors of the Holocaust.  If these comics were to appear today, would we call them racism or free speech?  Closer to home, we might ask, were the 13 Dalhousie Dentistry students engaged in misogynist, hateful posts or were they engaging in freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is an important and vital ideal.  We do not want a society where people are persecuted (or shot) for holding different perspectives.  At the same time, we need to think carefully about our freedom of speech ideal.  What are the boundaries to this freedom?  When is our freedom to hold a different or unique perspective an act of racism, misogyny or hate?

We do well to think about these questions not only as they read above but also from the perspective of theology.  What boundaries on our freedom does our theology place on us?  Here I see one answer rising above all others:  When Jesus says we are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves, we are being reminded to treat our neighbour with respect and dignity even in the context of disagreement.  It means that we must hold our differing perspectives with humility.  It means that at all times and with all people we begin with an ethic of love, however difficult this might be.

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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