Special Reports

What freedom for the enemies of freedom?

Hubert Czyżewski · 20 January 2015
Most of the drawings published by ‘Charlie Hebdo’ are simply repulsive and idiotic. Why is it worth fighting for someone’s right to be a disgusting moron? Why is it worth declaring ‘je suis Charlie’?

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

ascribed to Oscar Wilde

The terrorist attack on the headquarters of the French sa- tirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ caused a significant uproar in democratic countries all over the world. The effects include not only the solidarity marches attended by millions of people, but also the newly re-emerging debates over the role of political Islam, the future of multicultural societies and, above all, the utmost importance of free speech for the European civilisation.

Nevertheless, many, especially young people were rather reserved when it came to open and unambiguous expressions of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists. A well-known Czech theologian, Tomáš Halik, condemned the brutal act of violence and called things what they are by saying what so many other people seem to think: ‘What worries me are the attempts to glorify the victims as symbols of our culture.’

‘The lack of respect towards other people is the main source of evil in this world’; ‘it’s rude and stupid. I see no reason to sup- port rudeness and stupidity’; ‘free speech cannot be put above freedom of religion’; ‘they knew they were playing with fire and they got burnt’; ‘these sorts of caricatures are not real freedom of speech.’ Even though declarations condemning terror were also present, opinions like this could be heard all around in the days following the attack. Frequently they were the opinions of educated, intelligent and sophisticated people.

In a sense, I understand these views perfectly well. I belie- ve that most of the pictures published by ‘Charlie Hebdo’, and recently being circulated in the media, are simply repulsive and idiotic. Not only do I not find them funny, I find that they attack in the most vulgar way the values I identify myself with, and therefore they hurt me personally. More so: it sickens me that someone might think they are genuinely funny.

Why does it then make sense to fight for someone’s right to be a disgusting moron? Why is it worth declaring ‘je suis Charlie’?

In my opinion there are two main reasons. A state in which even the greatest sanctity is not excluded from critique ultimately protects us all. The second reason is, to speak rather pompously, ‘freedom’ as such. But first things first.

It is worth studying this problem from another angle and, instead of defending the satirists’ right to use bitter, even idiotic satire, try defending various radicals’ right to express even the most idiotic and malicious views.

In February 1930, three lieutenants of the German Reichswehr: Richard Scheringer, Hanns Ludin and Hans Friedrich Wendt, were charged with spreading Nazi propaganda amongst soldiers. Although the Nazi party was a legally operating political organisation and was gaining ever more support, soldiers in servi- ce were not allowed to actively participate in Nazi or Communist organisations because these ideologies openly advocated the abolition of the existing system. In the end, the case reached the High Court in Leipzig. On the 25th September, the lieutenants’ defence lawyer, Hans Frank (later Governor-General in Poland) called for the leader of the NSDAP himself to take the witness stand. The latter assured the court that Nazis do not aim to break the law and that they absolutely reject the revolutionary way of rising to power. He ended his speech with: ‘I can assure you that, when the Nazi movement’s struggle is successful, then there will be a Nazi Court of Justice too, the November 1918 revolution will be avenged, and heads will roll’. Adolf Hitler said it directly and in public: we will not destroy the state, we will take it over. We will play your game according to your rules. And we will win. And then we will change the rules and kill you. In 1930 the Nazi movement was a strong political movement, but in Germany there were still many other popular parties, which could still count on the support of the army and the state apparatus. This means that during the ‘Leipzig case’, Hitler could have still been stopped. It was not done, even though – importantly – it was known what could be expected of him.

Today in the media we hear from time to time that radicals of various sorts calling for the destruction of democracy, the introduction of a new order and the doing away with such and such enemies. They should be able to say so openly. Let them do it in open meeting houses, public squares and stalls in front of the subway. It would be much more dangerous if such ideas matured at clandestine meetings in basements or if they circu- lated in illegal distribution.

Let those who protect our republics know what is going on, and let them prepare a response. Let those who guard the values of our constitutions take part in the discussion and in this way effectively promote them – because despite all the shortcomings, historical experience shows that it is the democratic institutions developed in the West that create the best conditions for indivi- dual development. Let those who care for our physical security have such radicals under control – because there will always be minds so confused and hearts so hardened that they will hear no arguments.

In order to realize the magnitude of the threat, one cannot pretend that it does not exist and take only pretend actions, sim- ply prohibiting certain statements in the public sphere. This is the classic problem boiling down to the question: ‘How much freedom can be granted enemies of freedom?’. I strongly believe that in the end, giving freedom to the enemies of freedom is the best strategy for its protection.

Now, for the second reason. We would not be dealing with the issue of the French magazine of dubious quality, were it not for one key fact, which fundamentally changes the perspective from which we look at the events of January – people were murdered. The terrorists wanted to ‘punish’ the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ cartoonists for what they were doing and intimidate other journalists and illustrators around the world so that they do not publish the content that terrorists do not accept.

The debate on how to set the limit for the freedom of expres- sion and how to find a balance between the need for expression and sensitivity of others is important and necessary. But our weapon in such a debate must be substantive arguments, and our tools legal and institutional solutions that we have established just for such needs. Intimidation cannot be the argument, and a rifle cannot be the tool. Not now, not ever.

To be free is to have the choice between different options within certain boundaries constantly being renegotiated by the society. Therefore, our duty is to stand on the side of the harmed against the harming, even if we poorly evaluated the standpoint of the victims. Free people cannot live in fear of violence.