Our Common Duty After Charlie Hebdo

11/01/2015 8:32 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
People gather to pay to pay tribute to victims of the terrorist attack against the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, at JFK Plaza, commonly known as Love Park, in Philadelphia. On Wednesday, masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, killing at least 12 people, including the editor. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Most of us agree that freedom of expression cannot be compromised. Yet most of us do nothing to safeguard it. We tend to think that defending it is the responsibility of artists, or writers, or activists. But that couldn't be further from the truth, not in today's world at least. Defending the freedom of expression is the responsibility of each and every one of us--especially the vast, silent majority.

Across the world, the space for the contest of ideas is shrinking. News channels, editors, artists, and others have embraced political correctness, adopted self-censorship. No doubt they are under pressures and threats. They are afraid of offending religion, or something, or someone.

But self-censorship is an abridgement of the soul: an act of surrender; and in our present context of widespread self-censorship, Charlie Hebdo is a rare fountain of expression that has refused to surrender. It won't be too much to say that in discomforting us--in causing us to reexamine that which, while we might not agree with it, but which should nonetheless be allowed to be said or written or drawn--the magazine is a reincarnation of the spirit of Socrates.

But being Socrates is risky business today, just as it was in Socrates' time. It is also a necessary business: for stirring a society from complacence, for forcing it to reexamine its assumptions. Those at Charlie Hebdo, of course, are versed all too tragically well with the risks of the role, and of the perils of speaking one's mind more generally--as are the all too few other institutions and people who have bravely refused to shut up and let the contest of ideas be clipped.

We all need to join the business of not shutting up, and of not letting the contest of ideas be clipped; for it is simply not right, or sustainable, that a responsibility so great is having to be shouldered by so few, with consequences so fatal for them. Each one of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the eight dead, the injured, and their colleagues, has a face. The attackers on Wednesday, in contrast, wore masks. They were faceless. They fled after their act. They were cowards. It is our responsibility, of every one of us, to unmask our apathy on the issue of freedom of expression. In our anonymity we must not become cowards. We must stand tall and show our faces. We must make clear where we stand. In our silence, we cannot become the faceless. We cannot free ride on others' bravery--not when the stakes are so high, so fundamental. Too many of us are too ready to shut up, even as we rely on others' risky outspokenness for testing the boundaries of whatever freedom of expression does remain in our world. We must share the burden, and privilege, of upholding the freedom of expression. Because in some sense that's all we have. If we continue to cede an inch and a foot, soon we'll be forced to cede a mile until we find ourselves in the middle of George Orwell's 1984 or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

One way of holding our common ground, right away, would be to pull out your checkbook and support your local newspaper, or magazine, or cartoon journal, or painter, or sculptor, or indeed Charlie Hebdo itself. Their existence is not just their responsibility. Not anymore. Safeguarding the freedom of expression is our common duty.

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