Vive Charlie Issue 2 - Page 10

Living in outrageous times: Charlie Hebdo and the culture of offence

Speech by LSS Secretary, Charlie Klendjian at University College London Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, 29/01/2015

I don’t think the discussion about Charlie Hebdo is necessarily one about “offence” at all.

Why do I say that? Well, people are quite happy to offend each other every day, and our newspapers, TV stations and creative industries simply wouldn’t be able to exist without causing offence and creating shock value.

Disagreement, and the causing of offence, are indispensable aspects of our democracy because they enable us to debate the merits of one political ideology over another; disagreement and offence are crucial to the principle of free speech, and our way of life wouldn’t be our way of life without them.

Do you think Mehdi Hasan, of the Huffington Post, who is considered by many to be a moderate Muslim but who has called non-Muslims “cattle of no intelligence”, and who wooed the Question Time viewers recently with his strange thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, lies awake at night worrying about offending Tory voters when he writes articles criticising David Cameron and George Osborne? Do you think Mehdi Hasan worries about offending the “deeply-held political beliefs” of Tories? Of course not. And nor should he.

Think of the principle of free speech as parallel lines. So long as those lines are running parallel, i.e. so long as people are in agreement, there is absolutely no problem. But it’s the point at which those lines diverge that the principle of free speech becomes so important.

And that’s the whole point of free speech – it’s to enable the airing of views that people disagree about, even very strongly. It’s to enable the scrutiny, criticism and yes even outright ridicule of ideas.

Shutting down free speech by claiming you’re “offended” is basically an admission that you’ve failed to understand free speech. And if you don’t understand free speech, you don’t understand freedom.

There are what we can probably call some “objective” forms of offence, such as racism, anti-Semitism, intruding into people’s

grief – but I would call these “secular” forms of offence, that pretty much all decent people could agree are offensive, whether you are religious or not. But we’re still allowed to cause these types of offence; it’s not forbidden.

The crucial thing about these “objective” or “secular” forms of offence is that accepting they are offensive does not require the acceptance of any article of faith. And let’s remember, people don’t generally enforce these “objective” or “secular” examples of offence at the point of an AK47.

Arguing that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were “offensive” is different, because it does require accepting as a given, a particular article of faith – in this case the prohibition on depicting Mohammed – or accepting that all tenets of all faiths should be respected. And as we saw, this form of offence was enforced at the point of an AK47 in Paris.

What’s more, it was the fact Mohammed was depicted that caused the problem, rather than the nature of the actual depictions. The test case for proving this to us was the image that the former extremist Maajid Nawaz, who I have a lot of respect for, tweeted over a year ago and which landed him in hot water – he received numerous death threats and there were calls for him to step down as a parliamentary candidate.

Maajid tweeted the most banal Jesus and Mo picture imaginable – it was literally Jesus saying“Hey” and Mohammed saying “How you doing?”. Maajid deliberately chose that image to show it was the fact Mohammed was being depicted that was “offensive”, rather than the nature of the depiction.

So, somehow we have accepted that we are allowed to cause offence generally, and we’re even allowed to offend virtually all religious sensibilities, for example with films such as the Life of Brian, artwork showing a crucifix in urine, or plays about Mormonism.

So it appears there is one exception to this rule that we’re generally allowed to cause offence. That exception, as we have seen, is Islam. Islam is refusing