Like all civilized world citizens, I was outraged by the brutal killings this month in France. Those who first died were the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo. They were slain in retaliation for their creative satire of the Prophet Mohammed by extreme Islamists who felt the need and the right to impose their own judgment on these talented writers and illustrators. The world was outraged. Why?
First, the killing of individuals by those who are taking “justice” into their own hands without any constitutional or sovereign authority is abhorrent to those of a civilized world. It represents anarchy of sorts with the most powerful being able to impose their own views. The vast majority of the world’s population lives in countries that reject this form of oppression. As the lynching of an African American outraged thinking Americans in the 1920s, the assassination of these professionals outrages us today.
Second, the motivation of the attackers was to silence those espousing views, drawings and opinions that were offensive to them. Millions, from the throngs in Paris to those participating in small rallies at schools like Winthrop University in Rock Hill, have taken to the streets to express their support of free expression, of a free press and of free thought.
But, wait, do all these people truly believe that? Would a parody of an African American, or a young female student, or a homosexual be defended with the same vigor? I doubt it. How can you say that, one might ask? I can sort of prove it.
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On too many campuses today we have speech codes or at least regulations that ban hateful speech. When parodies of African Americans have been observed, college officials have investigated. A few years ago, when we had a Davidson student write an article that condemned homosexuality as being against Christian practice and faith, many wanted to charge him with “hate speech.” Two or three years ago, some students called some other students “faggots”; a major outcry calling for punishment of those who expressed themselves so vulgarly then followed. But, like the parody of Charlie Hebdo, should they not have that right? You might think the parody of Charlie Hebdo is more sophisticated, but that is then making a subjective determination and not upholding a universal principle.
Now, in no way do I find it attractive, amusing, or effective to parody an African American or to use such epithets. But, if I wish to defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to have a nude caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, to the discomfort of many Muslims, why would I then think we should have speech codes that prohibit derogatory comments aimed at groups, based on race or sexual orientation or gender? And on a college campus, where freedom of expression should flourish, we would least expect such speech controls.
It seems to me that those who are marching to protect the rights of Charlie Hebdo to publish freely (and I will join those marchers) should look close to home at effective action that they can initiate to support their cause of free expression. They can call for a repeal of speech codes. They should learn to tolerate offensive expression, as hard as that might be. For the alternative, that which we saw in Paris, condemns a world to brutality and even greater ignorance.
Clark Ross is an economics professor at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. He wrote this for The Charlotte Observer.
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