I’m sure I’m not the only American who never heard of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo before yesterday. And now having had a chance to see some of the content in the aftermath of yesterday’s tragic events in Paris, I probably would not be a fan of that kind of satire on a daily basis. But this is the point: whether I or you or the Pope or the president or anyone else approves or disapproves of what is written, drawn or spoken by others, a civilized society must respect the fundamental premise of freedom to speak, to draw, to write, to lampoon, to criticize and satirize regardless of our individual tastes and preferences.
“Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie” is the chant and slogan that immediately arose yesterday around the world after the tragedy in Paris. The murders of ten journalists and two police officers yesterday in Paris was an act of terrorism triggered by the exercise of freedom of speech and expression by the journalists. Leaders in France and around the world quickly condemned the murders. Even Pope Francis, himself a target of some of the lampoon cartoons, called the murders “abhorrent” and in no way justifiable.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world turned out for vigils and demonstrations of solidarity with the dead journalists and in support for the fundamental idea of free speech. A clear hallmark of a free and just society is the belief that no individual is above the law or above scrutiny, that every idea needs and deserves a challenge, even religious beliefs. Challenge may make us very uncomfortable, may even make us outraged — but to prohibit the challenge denies the essence of our humanity, which is our intellectual ability to form and express the critical questions. A belief that is afraid of challenge, that censors or prohibits opposing points of view, cannot be a very strong faith. Terrorists who commit homicidal acts in the name of religion belie the true foundation of any legitimate religion. True faith is an expression of humanity, not savagery.
We academics must also stand in solidarity with the journalists all over the world who dare to express opinions about the mundane and the mighty. Higher education cannot exist in the absence of freedom; the right to freedom of thought, expression, speech and belief is the very oxygen of our lives as teachers, researchers and stewards of the bodies of knowledge across human intellectual history. We can argue and debate and proclaim and declaim with zest and passion and loud disagreement; but in the end, we must stand integrally joined as one, united in our firm commitment to defend what makes us human, the free exercise of our intellectual being, against the forces that would snuff out civilized life.