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Shall We All Be Charlie: A U.S.-Europe Comparison

Feb 02 , 2015

The recent controversy on Charlie Hebdo depicting the Islamic Prophet has raised sharp debate around the world on the limits of freedom of speech and media.

Globally, the brutal attack on Charles Hebdo and its staff on January 7 has been widely condemned. As the new editor of this weekly magazine stated in the wake of this tragedy, “a cartoon doesn’t kill,” it is totally unacceptable to suppress the freedom of media by conducting terrorist slaughter. It is perfectly understandable that not all would appreciate the style of Charles Hebdo that may offer humor disregarding religious sensitivity. However, this doesn’t justify the use of bloodshed to unleash one’s dissatisfaction.

With this in mind, the massive parade in Paris on January 12th, featuring more than 40 world leaders, has sent a strong signal that the international community is behind France. The global solidarity as shown in Paris and elsewhere tells that the world shall not be intimidated by extremism, which resorts to terrorist means. In this spirit, Parisians, Europeans and many of their supporters in the other parts of the world have voiced, “We are all Charlie.”

By making such a statement, one demonstrates his or her political belief in democracy, freedom of media and expression in particular. This is particularly true for many French and Europeans as they are convinced of political secularism. To them religion shall yield to democracy and no one should use religious reason to suppress the freedom and liberty of a society, which they hold dear in their heart.t is interesting to note that even though the U.S. is sympathetic of the French cultural pluralism and in full support of the French crack down of terrorism and radicalism, America has some nuanced but important differences with France and Europe in theory and practice. On the one hand, the U.S. views itself as the world champion of democracy and freedom, but it has placed an emphasis on religious tolerance, especially not to touch upon where religious sensitivities are at stake. On the other, Americans tend to be sensitive in operating their own media industry, especially when sarcasm or humor is involved.

Therefore, American cultural pluralism has virtually imposed certain requirements of self-censorship. In the printed media of humor, the U.S. has its own magazines such as MAD, Monocle, The Realist and The National Lampoon etc. in the past, especially in their peak time of the 1950s-1970s. Though some of their cartoons went as far as to rather sensitive areas such as politics, sex and death, they often kept cool distance from religion.

In response to the Charlie Hebdo incident, The New York Time and Times magazine have lately allowed statement as “we are not Charlie” or “we are not all Charlie,” which differentiate themselves clearly from their European counterparts. There seems to be a major difference here between America and Europe – though there ought to be a political freedom of speech and media, there shall also be room of cultural and religious sensitivity. When clear disagreement exists between different cultures, it would be rational not to act in a way possibly to be viewed as offensive to the other.

As per Islamic tradition, it is not proper, if not prohibited, to portrait the Prophet, those non-Muslims shall pay due respect to such a tradition. It is not proper to argue that all could portrait each other’s saint so this is a trivial matter. As culture and religion is nurtured with time and likely to spread across the border, a single act of disrespect could well incite a trans-border collective response. Arguing that the others should respect one’s own right not to respect them doesn’t propel such this logic far. Instead, it could well incite ethnic discord or even confrontation.

This said, even “disrespect” of one’s own values should not be responded with radical means including violence. That is why globally France has been sympathized with. Nevertheless, such comfort has to be properly received as it contains the message of tolerance. To the surprise of many, the Charlie Hebdo reprinted that issue which evoked the terrorist attack, and published a new issue that portraits the Prophet again. Legally this has violated no restriction, but culturally the French cartoon magazine, with many supporters behind it, contrasts a lot with the political code that many Americans have followed.

The aforementioned difference between American and European response to the Charlie Hebdo illustrates the boundary of freedom – the liberty of media may not go without a limit. At political level, the fundamental value of democracy lies in the essential assumption of mutual respect, as any minority or ethnic group has a right to express. But in terms of social and economic impact, any such expression has to be weighed against cost. An unchecked freedom could likely lead to social unrest, so one has to balance rights and obligation.

Such common sense actually applies widely. Many countries have adopted media censorship on certain substances such as anti-society, extremism, or pornography. But on culturally sensitive area, it is more up to an individual to allow self-censorship and the government needs to encourage proper balance of tolerance and freedom. A mature society has to be able to get the best of them, rather than to be harmed by unlimited liberty and unbalanced tolerance.

Thus, to be a responsible Charlie might be more important than to be a mere Charlie, which stresses an abstract concept of freedom. Appreciating the right of liberty, while being sensible of other’s culture, brings more benefit but less harm than otherwise. The truth is neither “We are all Charlie”, nor “We are not Charlie”, but “We are not all Charlie”.

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