This is the Life: Freedom of speech doesn’t eliminate responsibility

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Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

This might sound strange coming from someone who has spent much of his life in the newspaper business, but I think we make a mistake in focusing on making stories like the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris into a freedom of speech issue. And that the concept of freedom of speech eliminates responsibility for what one says. Or writes.

To provide some personal perspective: If I am threatened with legal action because of something I write in this space (it happens, though the threats have never proceeded beyond that) it never occurs to me that I should be protected by a supposed right to freedom of speech. Defense of what I write should be, in my opinion, that it is truthful and that it makes fair comment on an issue or people associated with it. I don’t expect to poke a bear with a sharp stick and then be able to hide behind the coattails of something as indefinable as “free” speech.

When hundreds of thousands took to streets around the world to decry the murders in Paris I could easily sympathize with the victims, their families and their friends. There is no cartoon that could justify or excuse killing. But I found myself feeling leery about defending some supposed right to offend others with speech, words or pictures. And that feeling only solidified when French police started making arrests of people who made oppositional threats based on their so-called religious beliefs.

Coincidentally, in a recent conversation I had on an unrelated topic, a woman was speaking about living in a country in which violence and war were endemic for a long period. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” she pointed out.

She was preaching to the converted with that statement, because I have long been wary about the way we embrace one side or another in conflicts around the world. Western countries have a long history of making bad choices in the hope that our interests (nearly always economic) will be furthered or protected. We conveniently ignore that it was the U.S. that gave Osama bin Laden his start as a terrorist (of course he was a “freedom fighter” at the time).

We can argue ‘til the cows come about the value of cartoons or any form of expression that pokes “fun” at others’ beliefs, but the argument is a red herring, a distraction that prevents us from looking at the real reasons for terrorist activities. One of the reasons is simple, and is a lesson I learned about 15 years ago from a speech by demographer David Foot. He was speaking about countries that at the time were experiencing the fastest population growth, most of which were predominantly Muslim. And he issued a caution to leaders of those countries about the challenges large numbers of young people provide: “You have three choices — put them to work, send them to war or suffer the consequences.”

So now in those fast-growing countries there are huge numbers of young people growing up in economies that offer few opportunities. They are in underdeveloped nations that have even greater income and wealth disparity than we have in the West. There aren’t jobs to put the young people to work and the countries are too weak to go to war on any significant level. Countries are suffering the consequences. Idle hands do the devil’s work, even if the “devil” is cleverly disguised.

Religious leaders, often the equivalent of our own politicians, in some of those countries are not stupid. They can sit back and watch young people create havoc in their own communities or they can create distractions. What better way to do so than to fire them with a distrust and even hatred of “Western infidels” who have more than they can dream of, often benefitting from the resources and cheap labour in under-developed countries, or “emerging nations” as they are often optimistically called. Better, I am sure they think, than to have the young (mostly) fellows going against each other.

I have no tolerance for terrorism, or for expressions of hatred. I would rather put our resources into protecting ourselves than into defending the freedom to provoke and insult.

Me, I have always believed that one man’s meat is another man’s poison (the reference to “man” is not intended to be generic in these aphorisms — it’s nearly always the males of the species that cause problems). It then follows as a corollary that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and that one man’s joke is another man’s insult. I am not, therefore, Charlie Hebdo.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

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