Office of the Chief Rabbi

Op-Ed: Free speech should be cherished, not abused

The Chief Rabbi invokes the philosophies of Voltaire in an Op-Ed for The Telegraph, unequivocally defending our right to free speech, while lamenting its abuse by those with little regard for people of faith. There is a dangerous polarity emerging in the field of faith, one that is only exacerbated by its public denigration, as evinced by the Charlie Hebdo magazine’s latest front cover.

‘Free speech should be cherished, not abused’

“The name of Voltaire rings out across the continent this week as tributes are paid to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France one year ago. The senseless brutality of lives taken, supposedly in the name of God, raised a whole host of questions about free speech and the right to offend.

In the spirit of Voltaire, free speech must be defended to the death, has been the rallying cry. Free speech is broadly accepted as a fundamental right and, where people pay for it with their lives, the rest of the world must stand together to collectively challenge those who believe that violence is an appropriate or acceptable response to a cartoon that they find offensive.

It is disturbing, however, to see the speed with which some tend to rush to the second element of Voltaire’s famous defence of free speech, often at the expense of the first. He disapproved of what was said, before defending the right to say it. The right to voice that disapproval is one which, I fear, has been chased out of the popular discourse in recent years, particularly where faith communities are concerned.

‘The world must stand together to collectively challenge those who believe that violence is an appropriate or acceptable response to a cartoon’

It is not unusual for me to come across cartoons which I find offensive. They are most often images which invoke the Holocaust or Nazi imagery as a quite gratuitous way of berating the Jewish community or the State of Israel and invariably used in the knowledge that using such imagery will inflict the greatest amount of pain and anguish upon a Jewish audience. Needless to say, I find them objectionable, but I am comforted that most fair-minded people agree that the appropriate response to such cartoons is to forcefully and unequivocally condemn them. They recognise that there is certainly no virtue in causing such immense pain to others.

The journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo have a legal (but not moral) right to deeply offend every person in the world who believes in God by characterising Him as a murderer, if they so wish. But they do so understanding entirely just how insulting to millions of people that notion is. So let us not believe for a moment that their contribution is virtuous or worthy of praise.

Our world is fast becoming polarised. On one side there is a growing number of people who believe that faith can only be a force for negativity in the world and on the other, there is a growing number of people who believe that their faith is best expressed by heinous acts of violence. Neither view is correct but anything which pushes yet more people towards one of those positions is a part of the problem and not a part of the solution.

Tragically, Charlie Hebdo, through promoting a ‘them and us’ dynamic, are succeeding only in creating more tension and resentment. Editor Laurent Sourisseau, who drew the cartoon, insisted in his accompanying editorial that they would not yield to people who “wanted to see us in the Hell they believe in because we had blasphemed” and he went on to defiantly declare that “the convictions of atheists and secular thinkers can move more mountains than the faith of believers.” These sound like sentiments of a man who has dug his trench and believes he is at war with those who believe in God.

‘Through promoting a ‘them and us’ dynamic, are succeeding only in creating more tension and resentment’

Just one year on from such horrific attacks, I can well understand why Mr. Sourisseau may feel that he is at war, but speaking as a person of faith, I would much rather work alongside him to move mountains than compete over who can move more of them.

Voltaire also wrote, “May all men remember that they are brothers… If the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate each other, let us not tear each other apart when we are at peace.” I would suggest that the most positive contribution that Charlie Hebdo can make, rather than gratuitously courting controversy and actively seeking to offend, is to find opportunities to help build bridges between people and celebrate all that unites us.

Free speech may be a right, but only by using it as a force for good in the world, do we make it a virtue. Having seen the commemorative front cover of Charlie Hebdo which marks the first anniversary of the murders by depicting an image of ‘God’ as the perpetrator of evil who is “still out there”, I am left without any such comfort.”