Oh boy. What did I get myself into…
Gotta stop taking on huge epics that bore even myself to tears, halfway through realisation.
Not only am I no longer finding the motivation to write the (otherwise entirely planned out) remaining paragraphs of this post, but it will be poisoning my every thought and inspiration until I get done with it.
Here goes: the second of three parts in our increasingly-inaccurately-named diptych on French society, laws and politics:
Freedom of Expression in France (cont.)
As seen previously, you are free to express yourself in France, as long as you are neither a holocaust-denier nor advocating antisemitism, racial hatred or homophobic positions. Incidentally, a separate text also restricts your right to openly question recreational drugs laws (“presenting drugs under a positive light”). These are a lot of restrictions on what some think should be the unfettered right of people to freely express their views. The more 1st amendment-conscious US readers among you might even be appalled by the practice. Although you better make sure beforehand that you do not live in a country where many have once dubbed it “unpatriotic”, “treacherous” and therefore a crime, not to stand behind their leader… Dissent in times of “war” is just as much a part of freedom of speech as the right to express your twisted hatred for one group of people or another.
To make my point against the legal gagging of views I abhor just as much as anybody else, I could simply quote Chomsky in His Right to Say It:
It seems to me something of a scandal that it is even necessary to debate these issues two centuries after Voltaire defended the right of free expression for views he detested. It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers.
The problem with such theoretical arguments is that, for many, it does not answer the practical question of why, really, we should let scumbags of the Earth express themselves freely, especially when their own discourse would tend to go against the very basis that make such freedom possible.
Luckily, we had a perfect case handed over to us last month.
In France as in every other country, the fuss over the Danish caricatures of the prophet Muhammad was loud and mighty. Perhaps particularly loud, due to its fairly large muslim community and the recurrent issues around their integration or lack thereof and the fair amount of institutionalized discrimination that pervades French society. You may remember these issues from last November under such headlines as: “French youth riot in the Parisian suburbs” (if you watch the BBC) or “Muslims taking over France by fire and violence” (if Fox news is your poison).
Anyway, while the controversy in other countries wasn’t in fact so much a “controversy” as angry mobs burning embassies in some countries and people shrugging it off in others, in France, things were slightly different. French people, you see: they were in a pickle.
On one hand, there’s that whole thing about Voltaire, saying what you will etc. etc.
But this is also the country called home by a very large muslim population, as well as a not-so-small muslim-hating population. Anything suspected of condoning the latter’s hatred of the former is understandably not seen with a kind eye.
The whole situation ended up in a bunch of furiously absurd group alliances and enough paradoxes to make your head explode. Let’s go through a quick recap of what happened:
- Pictures are published in Denmark: some people find them in poor taste, others like them, but by and large, every French moderate initially agree that it is the unalienable right of a newspaper to openly mock a religion, all the while secretly breathing a sigh of relief that this controversy didn’t happen closer to home.
- A very left-leaning French satyric newspaper: Charlie Hebdo, publishes its own bunch of caricatures: admittedly less targeted at Arab nationals but no less direct in its attack of religions.
- A few [historically also left-leaning and usually moderate] associations start denouncing both attacks as racist and/or disrespectful of religious beliefs.
- Sure, sayeth the pro-caricature crowd, yet it is one’s right to be disrespectful of others’ beliefs in France as long as nobody gets hurt (physically, that is).
- Wait a minute, retort a few Muslim religious representatives: how about that law that says you cannot make disparaging comments in public against jews, black or any sort of ethnic, racial or sexual minority? What if the cartoons depicted bearded hasidim rabbis? Would they be legal still?
- And then in an unholy alliance of bigotry and common longing for the good ole’ days of the Holy Rack, most other organized religions join in and bring their unconditional support to their muslim brethren, in essence demanding that blasphemy be brought back under the scope of criminal law and all these wicked cartoons mocking Allah, the Pope or the Virgin Mary be burnt at the stake. After all, it wouldn’t require much rewording of existing anti-discriminatory laws, if any.
- At that point the legislator sighs and wonders what to do…
And that’s how you end up with clunky, subjectively applied laws, only upheld through a rather questionable process of manually singling out “disrespect toward religion” from “religious hatred”, assuming a clear difference even exists… This is also the point where any sane enlightened citizen of the modern ages realize the power of unabridged Freedom of Expression rights and the difficulty of trying to put an artificial limit to them.
Regarding the last part of my droning (which I intended to bring over more current matters of French work laws and the now-famous-and-defunct “CPE” law), I fear we’ll have to postpone that to a much later day, after I recover from my current news indigestion. Alternatively I may simply post the rough outline and call it a day. Either way, normal semi-legible blogging resumes now.