How fair is free speech?

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 23, 2018

Dark tones: The sorry state of minority assimilation in France has come under spotlight after the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015   -  REUTERS

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

France’s deep-rooted racism and intolerance mocks its defence of the right to expression

Few minds were changed in the furious debate that followed the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January, with protagonists sticking to well-rehearsed scripts on free speech and its legitimate boundaries.

The heat of that debate had barely subsided when a fresh round of contention broke out over a decision by the American unit of the global literary association PEN, to honour Charlie with a free speech award. Much recrimination followed as a substantial group of literary eminences chose to walk out of the awards ceremony and others stepped up to replace them.

The arena was soon invaded by outright bigotry. A far right organisation in the US, appropriately described as a ‘hate group’ by anti-racism campaigners, assembled an event in a small town in Texas with the object of caricaturing the prophet of Islam. Two armed men, reportedly locals with known criminal records, attempted to storm the event but were shot dead. Another round of acrimony ensued, with free speech zealots attacking the suggestion that the hate fest organisers should have exercised restraint.

In some embarrassment, Charlie’s defenders distanced themselves from the Texas event. Of the 523 covers that Charlie published in the 10 years since 2005, only seven chose to ridicule Islam, claimed the defence. It was satire’s fate to often be construed as hate speech. But as PEN America president Andrew Solomon and executive director Suzanne Nossel put it, Charlie’s valour lay in ‘their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech’. For another writer, all comparison between Charlie and the Texas event was misplaced since it fudged the ‘distinction between hate and critique.’ Even if Charlie’s methods were not ‘always admirable or appropriate’, its approach was avowedly secular. Secularism was not ‘state atheism, but rather, an impartial, detached policy that permits the coexistence of multiple faith groups and cultures under an egalitarian structure.’

As official policy, secularism or laïcité, dates from a 1905 French law on the separation of church and state, which disestablished the Catholic faith, turning over church properties to the state. In its implementation, the 1905 law was always negotiated with the Vatican and tempered by judicial interpretation. Over time, its rigour abated considerably. The January memorial for the Charlie victims at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was perhaps best evidence of the new compact between church and state.

Laïcité prohibits official funding of any religious order, but the French state supports an estimated 39,000 churches. In contrast, of about 2,500 places of Muslim worship, constructed mostly after the mass arrival of immigrants since the 1960s, not one enjoys any form of state support.

Evidently, observant Catholics acclimatise better in the French environment of secularism. And discrimination is an unseen reality, often denied. A 1972 anti-discrimination law asserted the singularity of French culture and the unique opportunities it afforded to all, irrespective of identity. Yet it provided no civil remedies and virtually disallowed ‘civil parties’ from bringing litigation on behalf of aggrieved individuals, reflecting an old French superstition that any form of intermediary loyalty between the citizen and the state would be corrosive of the republican values.

Minority assimilation remained patchy. In 2007, a reporter with Time spoke of a ‘bigoted chorus’ and ‘growing racist chatter in the French mainstream.’ In 2012, an official advisory body reported a 23 per cent rise in racist acts, with the vaunted 1972 law being by and large, ineffective. The official response was another astounding retreat into the delusional cocoon. In 2013, the French government outlawed the use of the term ‘race’ in all relevant articles of the penal code, or alternately, its replacement by the term ‘ethnic’.

French census enumerations ceased gathering information about race and religion ever since colour-blindness became official policy. But in 2004 it was reported that the preceding decade had witnessed a dramatic change in the composition of the country’s prison population. Though only about 10 per cent of the population, Muslims were close to 70 per cent of prison inmates in France. The prison system, presumably because of the unique seductions of the French secular pretence, was yet to adapt to this shift. There was for instance, an obdurate refusal to employ Muslim clerics to counsel prison inmates, because ‘inadequate screening could unleash potential militants into the system.’

Though uneasily aware of the troubling background, PEN America chose to honour Charlie, since as Solomon and Nossel put it: ‘The distressing absence of broad respect toward Muslims in France does not undercut Charlie Hebdo’s bravery in defending the right to be disrespectful’.

Early-April, just ahead of the PEN decision, Garry Trudeau, the legendary creator of the Doonesbury satire, chose a ceremony honouring his lifetime work, to sum up the moral dilemmas involved. “Traditionally,” he said, “satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.”

By its very nature ‘satire punches up, against authority of all kinds.’ To ridicule those at the bottom of the social heap ‘is almost never funny — it is just mean’. In punching down and ‘attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech. And despite all claims made on its behalf, it was an unavoidable conclusion that the ‘French tradition of free speech is too full of contradictions to fully embrace’.

Clearly, the free speech zealots have to worry that the cause is not hijacked by culture warriors creating new fissures.

Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla

Published on May 22, 2015

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