Suis-je Charlie? My Free Thoughts about Free Speech


 Fr.Guillermo “Memo” Campuzano, C.M., currently serves as Priest Chaplain for DePaul’s Catholic Campus Ministry.  He has worked on behalf of social justice on several continents and often works with religious communities around issues of faith and mission.  Students adore him and his challenging, humorous, realistic and loving approach to life and relationships as well as his absolute passion for justice on behalf of those who are marginalized. Let’s hope all are inspired to share their thoughts in the wake of his – he loves a lively diálogo.

This is my first blog post ever.  So my readers need to be very gentle and compassionate with my disorganized, free thoughts that I intend to share.  My intention in accepting the challenge to write a blog about Charlie Hebdo is to be thought provoking and not in any way to dogmatize about something that needs to be analyzed very carefully (not just from one perspective).

This week I have read in several magazines and newspapers around the globe about something that deeply captured my attention:  the right to blaspheme – which can mean many things.  In a way, it’s what many in our society consider an absolute right – the right to say anything we want with no limits whatsoever.  The right to blaspheme is the right to say whatever we want about what others consider sacred/absolute in their lives.  Religious people who believe in God are people with an absolute that they call Hashem, Allah, El Shaddai – just to mention the three monotheistic Abrahamic religious experiences.  I am aware that on behalf of this absolute, many acts of inhumanity have been and continue to be made in our society.

For me the paradox is that many people are claiming – after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack – that they believe in another absolute:  free speech, which gives them the right to say anything they want about other people’s absolutes, even if it is offensive.  That absolute (free speech) is so absolute that they are willing to risk their lives for it.  I say, “What?!?!”  My question:  Is this a battle between secular and religious absolutists?  Does this reoccurring god of the intellectual world have any ethical limits?  Or is it an absolute absolutism?

I am a religious man – and I humbly think I am an intellectual man.  I like to say what I think – that is what I am doing on this blog.  From both perspectives, as a religious man and as a pseudo-intellectual man, I believe that both my faith and my free speech have limits – my absolute respect for life.  I absolutely deny, in my life, the possibility to kill or harm in the name of God.  But I also deny the possibility to risk my life or put other people’s lives at risk just for me to have the right to say whatever I want.  From an ethical perspective I think there is a moment when I morally can risk my life religiously or secularly:  it is when I would give my life to protect the life of others.  This is martyrdom in religious terms – to protect the life of others – or the most radical act of humanity in secular terms.  Is this an absolute where religious and secular worlds can meet?  I hope so.

In our humanity, what is absolute?  To what do we give that value?  What are willing to do to protect it?

8 thoughts on “Suis-je Charlie? My Free Thoughts about Free Speech

  1. I would be willing to give my life for a lot of things. Freedom of Speech [in any of its forms, especially in its vilest form]. Nothing is so sacred, and protected that it can not be expressed. [I mean by assigning sacredness in not expressing a thought].

  2. Where would you suggest we set the limits on free speech? Restriction seems like a risky game to play. I don’t see why religion and free speech have to be diametrically opposed?

  3. I am also loathe to put boundaries on free speech. I recall visiting a museum in Amsterdam and responding to video case studies about when it was OK to suppress free speech/expression – the Nazi march in Skokie? Horrible racists in Germany? Each time, despite misgivings, I had to vote NOT to suppress free speech. With that being said, however, I appreciate Memo’s questions about absolutism and “Je ne suis pas Charlie”

    While I recoil at the violence and empathize with those suffering, I am not a huge Charlie Hebdo fan. Not saying “they deserved it!” Just saying it’s a kind of French satire I don’t unequivocally support/identify with. I think political, social and economic marginalization of many Muslim immigrants in France is totally exacerbated by anti-religious bigotry – or at least seeming ignorance of religious faith and people that is totally acceptable whereas any perceived ignorance by religious people is skewered.

    In honor of MLK Day, I was given a list of non-violent principles fashioned after his work and life. One of them is “non-violence chooses love instead of hate” and another said it “seeks to win friendship and understanding.” I believe that mocking the Prophet Muhammad is problematic, though I will give people the right to do so. And I think we can ask questions about limits – limits out of human decency rather than legal constraints. Not sure where those lines are, exactly, but I feel like wrestling with them is a positive thing to do in a complex, diverse world. As we often discuss with students, “What are your goals with this action/communication/program, and are you choosing the best way to achieve them?” I personally believe that demeaning what others love with no sympathy or apparent understanding often undermines one’s stated goals, and sometimes it’s good to come back to that question. …not a thoughtful thesis. Just some thoughts.

  4. Of course there are limits to free speech. We limit speech when we say it’s wrong to yell “FIRE” in a crowded building. We limit speech when we say it’s inappropriate to harass individuals. On the other hand, this is speech that is limited because it directly effects an individual. I don’t think anyone would ever say it’s a good idea to sexually harass someone, or to create mass chaos in a crowded building by yelling fire. These are our self-imposed limits that we use to protect individuals.

    That being said, religions are ideas. Ideas are ALWAYS subject to criticism, debate, or even mockery. Many ideas in religion are worthy of severe criticism, and some of the more outlandish aspects do deserve mockery. But it’s an important distinction to make, by mocking an aspect of a religion, I’m not mocking an individual of that religion. For example, I find the official Catholic position on birth control atrociously sexist and backwards, lost in a world where their philosophy is no longer relevant. Does that statement automatically imply I believe every catholic in the world is sexist, backwards, or irrelevant? Absolutely not.

    Ideas, philosophies, beliefs- these are concepts. Concepts NEED to be criticized. Today, we make a mockery of many convictions people held DEEPLY, like which-hunts, for example. Without deep criticism and debate, we would never leave these dark ages of our past. Limiting our ability to blaspheme limits our ability to root out bad ideas. Limiting our ability to root out bad ideas limits our ability to progress to newer and better things.

    Blasphemy is important. And to those who are offended by blasphemy, how weak is your faith? How weak do you believe your god to be that he (or she) can’t handle the musings of a simple mortal?

  5. I totally agree that, in a civilized society, we should have respect to allow others to have different thoughts and beliefs. I can enthusiastically support self-imposed restraint on speech, but certainly it should be voluntary and at all imposed.

    I think we all could learn from Pope Francis…. who are we to judge?

  6. For me the biggest question in all of this is “What serves the common good?” Understanding that there will always remain differences of opinion and perspective on this question, the point in a society is to have this question be THE fundamental question, and not JUST what is good for me as an individual or for my particular community, without concern for the whole. If I am only concerned for MY right, without also asking about my responsibility to the larger whole, we are in trouble as a society and other people and their rights are likely being pushed aside or marginalized.

  7. Arthur’s response and Mark’s response closely resemble mine. If religious people can’t take some criticism or some mockery (I remember hearing some Polish jokes right after John Paul II was elected pope and they were being told by Catholics too). But one of the pictures Charlie Hebdo published was a picture of the Prophet Muhammad NAKED. Now come on! If a university paper wanted to publish a picture of a naked Jesus Christ, my guess is that the powers that be would never allow it. This kind of publication results in inflaming hatred and revenge. I does not serve the common good. I understand that even the French government asked Charlie Hebdo not to publish the naked Muhammad picture, but it was done anyway. Although we might be free to do such a thing, is it really the best strategy to accomplish our goal? I don’t think it was. If we are going to live together–and we are a world-wide community whether we want to accept that or not–and exist together and respect each other and challenge each other, inflaming each other’s beliefs is not such a good strategy, in my opinion.

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