Je Suis Charlie

By Dr. Henry Flores, NewsTaco

You are probably wondering what the murders of the political cartoonists in Paris by terrorists have to do with Latinos in the United States.  Well, just about everything!  The terrorists were carrying out a threat against political satire, a threat that had been made because the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, had printed satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.  Both the drawings and the reactive violence serve as a reminder to us here in the United States of the quandary we face when dealing with “speech rights.”

Speech Rights 

Some individuals in the United States will declare, with a great deal of ignorant pride, that they can say whatever they wish because they have a right to their opinion under the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Well, they are both right and wrong.  They are correct but only to a certain extent because once their words lead to violence or discriminatory action then the speaker loses any protections under the law they might have had or thought they had. In other words you can’t just say whatever you wish, when you wish, about anything you wish.[pullquote]… you can’t just say whatever you wish, when you wish, about anything you wish.[/pullquote]  Civil society does have its limits. Likewise, you cannot retaliate against someone because of something they said just because you don’t like it or you feel that it went against something you believed.  However, someone does not have the right to goad you into an act of violence by badgering you and pushing you beyond the point of human endurance.  Of course, in this latter instance this would not be sorted out until a criminal trial.

Problems with Speech Rights 

By now you have noticed that I am not using “freedom of speech” as a descriptor instead I am using “speech rights.”  The reason for this is simple given the discussion in the previous paragraph.  There is no freedom of speech, only a limited granting of speech rights from the government.  Frankly, I wish there was more control on some of things we say in the United States.  For instance, in Europe one cannot openly avow hate speech or speech glorifying far right-wing ideologies such as fascism or white supremacy.  The reason for this stricture is simple and can be found in the history lessons we received from the atrocities that came out of World War II.

Some of my colleagues and detractors have often pointed out that I’ve always been too concerned with racism.  Some of my detractors have even gone so far as to argue that times have changed and the racism of old no longer exists and I’m being overly sensitive about things.  Maybe I am but part of what I do is to remind everyone that racism and hatred are alive and well today and if we don’t keep vigilant and create barriers to the speech and actions of racists and hate mongers then we’re doomed to repeat the horrible lessons of World War II.  The removal of Jews, gays, political liberals and progressives, Roma, and infirmed by Hitler Germany began with the widespread use of vulgarities and lies levied against members of these groups.  What began as hate speech ended in the extermination of 8 million human beings.  Speech begat action; hate speech begat murder.

Je Suis Charlie 

Now don’t get me wrong Charlie Hebdon may have pushed the envelope beyond tearing, still hatred for their criticism drove the murderers to not simply kill the political cartoonists but also many more innocent bystanders including Jews, Muslims and others.  The murders’ hatred blinded them to what they were doing resulting in indiscriminate killing.  Maybe, the French authorities could not have prevented this terrible tragedy from unfolding but taking a stronger stand against hate speech may have helped.

One way of preventing a similar tragedy from occurring in the United States is to have the government, congress, president, governments at all levels, to pass laws preventing and controlling hate speech, particularly that of racists and religious hate mongers.  Unfortunately, a great many lives throughout history have been caused by hate generated by religious fanatics of all sorts and so religious institutions need to come forth and temper the language of some of their followers.  After all, maybe I’m mistaken, but I thought religion was designed to spread charity and love among all humanity not to instigate hatred and warfare.

So, je suis Charlie because I believe we all have a right to speak what we feel politically but within reason and within reasoned debate, not based in hatred and intimidation.

Henry Flores, PhD, is a Distinguished University Research Professor, Institute of Public Administration and Public Service; Director, Masters in Public Administration (MPA); Professor of International Relations and Political Science at St. Mary’s University.

[Image courtesy of Charlie Hebdo]

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