The Charlie Hebdo tragedy, following an outpouring of grief, outrage and an affirmation of the importance of Freedom of Speech, has provoked a discussion about the limits (if any) that societies should impose on this freedom. The Pope has waded in and aligned himself with some radical Islamist groups asking that faith and deities be exempt from criticism and satire.
Well, I do understand that it is in his interest that Bill Maher stop making fun of his silly hat and robes, but for the rest of us our response should be dictated by both history and present reality within the diverse cultures and societies of this world.
If indeed Jesus, Mohammed, Allah, and the Pope himself are infallible, above criticism, perfect in the conduct of their lives, their judgements and their proclamations, (and above criticism and satire) then surely the wise thing to do would be to turn over the reins of government to them and their acolytes, apostles, and lieutenants. But wait a minute, we did try that once, and it was not a pretty sight: Caliphates, inquisitions, religious wars, persecutions, torture, beheadings…. Absolute faith may be comforting but it leads directly to defending that faith by all means. History tells us we must be free to criticize and satirize our leaders, our deities, and our sacred cows or risk a return to the horrors of the 13th century. (Or the horrors we see in some parts of the world in the 21st century)
And a current survey of all the countries of the world, their forms of governance, press and speech freedoms, will surely show that freedom of speech, including the right to satirize and criticize faith, religion, leaders and deities, is closely associated with tolerance and inclusiveness. People of all faiths (including those who do not ascribe to any) are today living peacefully, cooperatively, and productively only in those countries that permit such freedom.
Should there be any limitations? Certainly not those dictated by taste, political correctness, personal sensitivities, rituals, challenges to authority, and hurt feelings. But we have all been made sensitive to the power of hate propaganda when espoused by people of influence and authority. Not the mentally ill person on the street corner railing at Jewish bankers, but the Third Reich leaders, the popular radio host in Rwanda, and some Islamist Imams themselves. Their propagation of hate can be dangerous.
But in the laws of our liberal democracies the concept of Intent is important, along with due process, independent judiciary, and trial by peers, as well as the belief that no one is above the law. Our current hate laws are sufficient to deal with anyone of influence who propagates hate with the intent of inciting violence. And paradoxically, I think these very laws are protected indirectly by our freedom of speech and expression.