“Je suis Charlie” is the rallying call on twitter. Who would have thought that there were so many dormant believers in our inalienable right to freedom of expression, ready to leap to the defence of that core element of western identity? Certainly not anyone who has spent time on a university campus recently.
I confess to feeling that there was something not just a little bit ironic about seeing so many people who had devoted their energies to shutting down debate in Oxford last term suddenly emerging from their pupae, leaving their censorious pasts behind them, and soaring as beautiful butterflies of free speech. Now that we have all had this great awakening, would it be reasonable to expect fewer protests, less censorship, and the end of no platforming? I wouldn’t bet on it.
As is so often the case with these incidents, the principle at stake is one with which no one would disagree publicly. After the attack you would have to search very hard to find someone attacking freedom of speech and yet it has taken only a couple of days since the murders to find people expressing sentiments to the effect of “well, maybe they shouldn’t have printed those cartoons”. We find the usual culprit of The Guardian, with Joe Sacco’s cartoon article equating satire with the sentiment “let us drive them from their homes and into the sea”. But I was surprised to find the Financial Times in that camp as well, Tony Barber suggesting that “some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo”, saying that they had provoked the Muslims who killed them. I would hope that “common sense” means taking it for granted that murder is not a proportionate response to satire. And if there are those who think that it is, then does the fault lie with the satirists or with the murderers?
If all of those people tweeting “Je Suis Charlie” believed in what Charlie believed, then our university campuses would be very different places. Charlie believed absolutely that being offended gives you no right to censor, and yet in our current society, the cry of offence seems to trump every right to expression. “Feeling safe” is more important than being intellectually challenged. This is what we saw in Oxford last term, when the OSFL ‘abortion culture’ debate was no-platformed by people who objected to the choice of speakers and motion. Instead of going to it and putting their complaint in a reasoned way, or just not going, they made it unsafe for the debate to go ahead.
This is not freedom of speech, it is freedom from speech. If you don’t want to listen to somebody, then don’t give them a platform. It is an outrageous presumption to threaten to take away a platform from someone else, at an event you did not organise, simply because you yourself don’t like the speakers.
The National Union of Students currently runs a “No Platform” policy, denying platforms on campuses across the country to people they don’t like. Apparently university students, who one would hope are quite bright, are either so easily led that these people with ‘dangerous’ opinions can turn them all into fascists in the blink of an eye, or they are so fragile that none of them can bear to hear their worldviews challenged. Does anyone else bristle in anger every time the NUS declares that a group or speaker is just so dangerous that we’re not allowed to listen to them? If those in the NUS are so convinced they are right, then where is the danger in allowing those bumbling, unenlightened fools who hold differing views to them to talk about their philistine opinions?
Let me be absolutely clear about this: if you think that because of what happened in Paris, we should not satirise Islam anymore: tu n’es pas Charlie. As long as people believe doctrines which appear ridiculous to other people, those beliefs will be and should be ridiculed. If you think you have a right not to be offended: tu n’es pas Charlie. And if you think that you should be able to take away platforms from other speakers, simply because you disagree with them: tu n’es pas Charlie. The bitter irony is that many of the people who have embraced “Je Suis Charlie” as a throwaway tweet would have opposed and protested the newspaper’s cartoonists as Islamophobic racists had they ever been invited to speak at the University. If you are a No Platformer, tu n’es pas Charlie.