Opinion: Cowardice (Charlie Hebdo)

POSTED: 02/2/15 1:16 AM

It was predictable that the solidarity with Charlie Hebdo would crumble fast, Koen Lemmens, who teaches human rights and constitutional law at the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium writes in an op-ed in Trouw. It is a sad reality, but it is there. After the outpouring of sympathy, criticism is taking the upper hand.

“Already now some sensitive souls are wondering whether the editorial staff did not look a tiny little bit for trouble itself. Does it not testify of a lack of responsibility to publish cartoons that hurt the feelings of others? Self-censorship is, according to anthropologist Annette Janssen the basis of civilization. Is that really so?

Legally there was nothing wrong with the cartoons. France does not have a ban on blasphemy. Furthermore, the Human Rights Court  says that freedom of expression also applies to opinions that shock, hurt or disquiet. Therefore the debate is being diverted from the legal domain to the oral one. Because it is not because something is legally allowed, that it is also orally acceptable.

The perversity of the debate today is that the impression is being created that the vulgarity and excessiveness of Charlie Hebdo is blameworthy anyway. That attitude does not just ignore the essential function of caustic satire in a democracy, it especially ignores the fact that also more refined minds have been threatened. Like Salman Rushdie for instance.

Those who think that moderate and refined criticism would trigger less resistance, are fooling themselves. Already in 2004, French education inspectors reported to their  minister that Muslim students refused to read Madame Bovary or Voltaire. Those works hurt the students. Would it really be a sign of civilization to exempt these students from this literature?

Is it sufficient that certain citizens feel hurt to ban the spread of ideas and opinions? Empathy, decency and delicacy force us to answer in the affirmative. But then, where do we draw the line? If someone is equally hurt by a book by Voltaire as he is by a cartoon, is it then better to ban the publication of Voltaire as well?

Furthermore, which sensitivities do we then take into account? Of course I want to consider what is important for Muslims. But why limit ourselves to them? Let ‘s then also remain silent about collaboration (this hurts some Flemish nationalists), about child abuse in the church (that affects certain Catholics) and those remaining communists should not be offended by taunting that party.

How do we propose to stick to a similar approach for everyone? What about Robert Daviano, the Italian author whose life was threatened because he did not consider the sensitivities of the mafia? Certain Muslims are now saying that those who respect the prophet have nothing to fear. That could be, but the same reasoning goes for criticism of the mafia. Is this the society we want?

In a super-diversified community sensitivities have grown exponentially. In direct communication it is indicated to show the necessary diffidence. Private virtues are in this case public sins. But as a general social principle it cannot possibly be beneficial. Taking the sensitivity of a group as the only yardstick is practicing self-censorship. This way we are collectively silencing each other. Furthermore self-censorship is inspired by fear. Enforcing behavior with threats is not grand at al. Fear wrapped up as delicacy is still called cowardice.

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