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Kimberly Ross:  Free speech is not divisible. Giving and taking offence must both be defended


There is a false sense of security we possess in knowing we’re not satirical cartoonists charged with being distasteful. This weakly applies in a usual sense, perhaps, but especially so since the Charlie Hebdo massacre on January 7 in Paris. That’s not us. We wouldn’t go that far knowing our material is highly offensive to radicals who won’t just talk about retaliation, but act it out. Many have concluded that the magazine “asked for it” with their very public mocking of Islam’s central figure, Mohammed. Had they not engaged in the regular heckle, we would not be discussing them in this manner today…right? No. I take issue with that entire thought.

Of the innocent who lost their lives in the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the July 7, 2005 bombings in the London Underground, the November 5, 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the March 29, 2010 bombings in the Moscow metro, and the December 16, 2014 Peshawar school massacre, none were asking for it. They simply were targets of terror, for the sake of terror, for the purpose of spreading fear. They meant nothing to their killers except as pawns in a denting of national and international psyche. As we all know, these are but a few of many examples of the bloodlust Islamic extremists possess. The list is extensive.

In the same way this horrific history of hate shouldn’t keep us from taking a plane or riding the subway, the attack in Paris is a reminder that freedom of speech should not be waived. That right is a foundation of free societies and absolutely must be maintained. Ross Douthat, in his New York Times piece “The Blasphemy We Need”, stated it well: “Must all deliberate offence-giving, in any context, be celebrated, honoured, praised? I think not. But in the presence of the gun — or, as in the darker chapters of my own faith’s history, the rack or the stake — both liberalism and liberty require that it be welcomed and defended.” Not only should free speech of the offensive variety be protected, but the speech which declares that one is offended should be just as welcome.

It is significant to note that Charlie Hebdo did not just ridicule Islam. Christianity, also among the religious mockery, wasn’t handled in a more gracious manner. The magazine was neither selective in its derision nor intimidated by outcry enough to cease commenting on any subject. As a Christian, I don’t find the covers or contents mocking my beliefs as worthy of attention. My reaction to such offence is simple. I either vocalise my dislike, or pay it no mind and turn the page. Considering the world is almost obsessed with scoffing at Christianity, these instances aren’t rare. What is rare? Protecting the feelings of those who claim Christianity as their faith. That protection is not even a fraction of the shelter placed over Islam and its converts. Media reports are that Islamophobia is rampant. However, the real fear comes from many in the media itself who are unwilling to call out Islam’s violent root for fear of reprisal.

In the sad aftermath of the massacre, some media outlets published several of the offensive cover images in an attempt to both honour those killed as well as show that free speech had not died. Still others chose to censor such images. The Associated Press, who self-censored, announced: “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images”. On its face, that statement seemed similar to others, but it was laden with hypocrisy. As reported by the Washington Examiner, the AP had for sale copies of “Piss Christ” on its website: “…in case you want to admire the “work of art” from three decades ago that consisted of a photograph of a crucifix in a vat of the photographer’s urine, the AP will sell it to you“. By the time that fact was reported, the picture had been pulled. Censorship up until that point was only of immediate concern for some things, apparently. Seems phobic if you ask me.

We are obsessed with conclusions. The shock of attacks such as this push us first to determine exactly why such an act took place, and second, how we can prevent such acts in the future. That natural response doesn’t fit so well in a society where the hate extremists’ own ideology propels them to murder the young and the old, whether religious or not. In addition, the refusal of media outlets to share images from Charlie Hebdo, while knowingly mocking other religious groups, is quite telling. Protecting the use of free speech shouldn’t just be for a weekly newspaper, and condemnation of evil shouldn’t be reserved for when it’s declared safe to do so. Freedom is a costly luxury, and that is part of the price.

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Kimberly Ross
Kimberly Ross
Kimberly Ross is a history graduate who writes for

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