There is far more to free speech than the right to be offensive

The first edition of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to be published since the attack on the magazine’s headquarters will go on sale today. Davina Cooper writes that while the attack raised fundamental questions over the nature of free speech, there was comparatively little said about the victims of the related attack on a Jewish supermarket which took place in Paris on 9 January. She argues that the tendency to focus on the right to be offensive has obscured other important ways in which our speech is limited.

Credit: Sean Kippin
A Charlie Hedbo tribute outside London’s National Gallery (Credit: Sean Kippin)

A lot has been said in recent days about free speech and the right to cause offence. Many posts and articles have been excellent, exploring satire, racism, nationalism and post-colonialism among other things. Early on, I also tried writing a piece (not posted) to think about the power offending holds: why there is so much attachment to the right to make fun of those already made fun of.

But this was before the Jewish grocery killings. And then, what was surprising or, if not surprising then at least quite striking, was the absence of speech. My Twitter account, which had been rapidly churning through pieces both critical and supportive of Charlie Hebdo, went quiet. Of course, a lot continued to be said – on free speech and other matters, but on the killing in the Jewish grocery: very little.

Now, as others have also said, many atrocities around the world, which should also have been remarked upon, went unmarked in the West, kicked off-stage by the focus on Paris – the killings in Nigeria, recent deaths in Pakistan; and we may not have to speculate too far or too hard to identify reasons why. But I want to stay with the events that dominated the news and social media, to consider what in that set of events got far less talked about.

I want to ask, why was there so much to say about shooting cartoonists, and so little to say about shooting grocery shoppers. In posing this question I should say, what I hope doesn’t need to be said, that I am not placing the killings in any kind of hierarchy of awfulness or horror. As commentators on the murders, despite differing perspectives, agree, to be killed is a terrible and terrifying thing to happen. This piece is more about the social media conversations surrounding the shootings than about the deaths themselves.

And so we might wonder: why were some of the deaths talked about so much more than the others? One reason might be that the murder of the cartoonists appeared an assassination – a deliberate killing of identified people (even as others got caught in the shootings too). We do not know how deliberate the later set of grocery killings was, although it seems likely that, while the individuals were randomly selected, the decision to kill people in a Jewish store was not.

But I want to consider a second set of reasons for the uneven attention: the understanding that the cartoonists were killed for their participation in the public sphere, and specifically for their provocative address there. The shoppers were killed for being in a grocery, in other words for meeting their needs for food.

Things unspoken

Even among critical left intellectuals, I think, public speech provokes more comment than shopping for basics. The philosopher Hannah Arendt famously criticised politics and the public sphere for becoming colonised by domestic needs and household interests. But while governmental action in the West may still concern itself with welfare (even if largely to privatise or withdraw it), public talk gravitates towards that which is publicly ‘talkable’. This may concern issues of welfare, certainly, but public talk struggles with events not yet rendered intelligible within the public sphere.

And what, in media and social media, has stood out in this recent episode as so highly intelligible are the lines drawn around free speech and the public right to be offensive, particularly when this gestures towards currencies of racism, homophobia and misogyny – even if such gesturing remains contested and disavowed by those stuck to it. Why though, given the wide range of possible speech acts, is offence so regularly the focus when the sign of free speech is raised?

There are so many other kinds of speech. There is speech about people, and speech about companies. There is speech in family homes and in schools and prisons. In some cases, free speech is deemed to be trumped by other liberal interests. Defamation, employment and property laws restrict what can be said: limiting criticism of a company, giving away their “trade secrets”, or contacting an ex-employer’s clients touting for business.

In other contexts, speech rights and freedoms are limited by the focus on the adult public sphere. How often do children’s rights to talk circulate as political claims, particularly when they concern home spaces? Why is it that homophobic remarks in the public domain are deemed more worthy of protection, more integral to free speech, than a child’s desires and distastes, stopped from being spoken (or acted upon) at the dining room table, in front of the television or curled up in bed? There are so many things in so many places that that can’t be said.

And yet the debate on free speech keeps on circling around offensive speech, and the offending of subordinate groups, who should know how to “take” a joke, except the joke isn’t given to them, and so they cannot take it; they are not the audience, those addressed in the public sphere expected to pass the joke on, but instead its butt or target. For offensive speech, unlike other kinds of talk, appears not only to be a legitimate aspect of public sphere communication but has come to constitute what it is to be a public sphere. We know, in the West, free speech exists so long as the right to be offensive continues.

The lack of speech about the murdered shoppers is part of this same story. The shoppers were engaged in mundane relations of exchange rather than the seemingly braver sphere of public discursive action. Wecould make their deaths political drawing on easy narratives to hand that explain why it was Jewish people that were killed. And while new governmental security measures and policies would make their deaths political, and while, no doubt, their deaths may well become political, until these moments arise, what is there to say?

And herein lies an enduring intellectual (or academic) dilemma: what to do when nothing interesting can be said. A wider public uses silence to mark the unsayable; to mark the fact that speech is inadequate, that there is more going on than speech can usefully grasp or gesture to. As institutionalised moments of silence, these pauses can seem clichéd; yet often, the inability to speak is profound.

The free speech debate does not have much to say about that which remains unspoken in the absence of explicit public restraints, those lines drawn through governmental violence, state laws or the terrorists’ gun. Yet, the silences that follow when we can’t think what to say, and the silences of expression and action in non-public domains also matter.

In an era where speech moves between friends and strangers faster and more thickly than ever before, it seems to me important to pay attention to how patchy such speech is; how many important things get omitted (and how many things become important because they get omitted) for reasons which have little to do with forces in the public sphere saying no.

Note: A version of this article was originally published on the author’s personal blog and this version appears on the LSE Europp – European Politics and Policy blog. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of Democratic Audit UK, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before commenting. 

Davina Cooper is Professor of Law and Political Theory at the University of Kent.

Similar Posts