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Zut alors – who am I?

Just because I am horiified by what happened at Charlie Hebdo doesn’t mean I want to rescind 18C

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

So, I ordered my‘Je suis Charlie’ tee-shirt. Whether I agreed with the crassness and crudities of Charlie Hebdo or not, I needed to stand against the murderous fanaticism I had seen in Paris. I needed to express, publicly, and en solidarité, outrage at such a threat to secular, pluralist society.

Just after placing my order, I read the story revealing that the police officer who had been executed so mercilessly in the Paris attack was a Muslim. He had died in the service of the secular French Republic. He was, it was reported, an individual of strong civic values. He was performing his police duties for the Republic notwithstanding the likely offence he took at the material Charlie Hebdo published. I identified, I realised, more with the individual who had defended the right to freedom of thought than I did with the individuals who had, arguably, abused that freedom – even if I felt sympathy for their tragic sacrifice. I quickly went on-line to try to find my ‘Je suis Ahmed’ tee-shirt. There were none. I asked one producer of the ‘Charlie’ tee-shirts to do a custom production, and she obliged. Perhaps, I would alternate the tee-shirts depending on my audience.

In the days that have followed, I have read the opinion pieces suggesting that in Australia, to be true to the outrage I felt at the attack on Charlie Hebdo, to be true to the liberalism that was and is under attack, I had to support the rescission of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Surely my professed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo meant that I should oppose any attempt to proscribe speech and art that simply ‘offends’ the sensibilities or beliefs of some parts of the community?

I had not previously supported the reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act. Sacré bleu! Qui suis-je?

Je suis John Stuart Mill! Of course: return to a founding father of modern liberalism to find the answers to my confused political identity. The hope for clarity was momentary. There is the ‘if it does no one harm, leave it alone’ Mill that emerges from simpler, ideological exercises in proof-texting Mill’s texts. But there is the more complicated, consequentialist Mill. Mill’s guiding ethical principle was ‘utility in the largest sense, grounded in the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’. And to the extent that judgment was always involved in balancing and maximising those interests, Mill never escaped the ambiguities that were the legacy of prudence in his application of that principle.

Yes, Mill insisted that government power and regulation should only be exercised over a citizen to prevent harm, real harm, to another. He insisted on freedom of expression in order that fallible humans could discover and test truth and ignorance. But Mill could also insist that ‘as soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion’. And so public violation of ‘good manners’ could, it seemed to Mill, come within the category of offences against others that was properly the object of prohibition.

So could I both affirm freedom of thought, the freedom of expression of such thought, and affirm limits to and regulation of expression of thought where it affects prejudicially the interests of others? The terrorism in Paris and the emerging pattern of Islamist fanaticism demand that ordinary citizens defend strongly the concept and institutional expression of freedom of thought. Fatwas against those who have drawn cartoons, no matter how offensive, enforced by death squads, are without qualification a threat to the kind of society I believe in. The ongoing challenge of managing the irreducible pluralism and religious coexistence that comes to characterise that society, and of combatting incitement to hatred and violence on the basis of differing ethnicity or belief, nevertheless continues. I cannot pretend that large parts of that society will not be provoked by a publication like Charlie Hebdo. I cannot simply dismiss the offence taken as irrational (even though I think it is), nor insist that religious believers adopt the thinking of the enlightenment (even though I think they should). How likely could that even be when a moderate fellow like Pope Francis justifies anger in response to religious provocation?

I am agnostic and find religious belief frustrating and saddening. I believe that it should be possible, especially in our universities, to challenge religious belief and traditions. But I understand the concern of moderate Muslims that if some constraint is not imposed against the most consciously provocative expressions of opinion, radicals will be able to exploit the offence taken. I know how real anti-Semitism is, and how fear is increasing in some sections of the Jewish community that it will find outlets in the guise of free speech. I don’t accept, for example, that one should be able to popularise the quenelle, a form of anti-Jewish Nazi salute, in a comedy act. I think ethnicity is a social construct that holds humanity back. But I feel the burden of racism that is carried so heavily still by Aboriginal friends.

So, what to think, what to support politically? Perhaps I had not gone far enough back into the political traditions of the West. I gave it some more thought. Then I remembered Burke: in the politics of the real world, after the principles are articulated and the debate exhausted, what we arrive at is judgment. It involves holding together, practically, idealism and realism about humanity, society, and government. The extent to which we prohibit that which is offensive because we judge it to also be hateful and subversive of community harmony is a matter, finally, of practical judgment.

Resist the call to match the fanaticism of the jihadist with the ideological purity of the libertarian, I hear the spirit of Burke telling me. One can be against the enemies of a free society and be in favour of the regulation of actions and behaviour that put at risk the cohesion I value as much as that freedom. I can wear my ‘Je suis Charlie’ tee-shirt to my meeting with my Liberal MP and ask her not to support radical changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Zut alors! Je suis Edmund Burke aussi!

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