I Am Not Charlie

Last week, the opinion page editor sent me an opinion article and asked me “should we print this?” I thought it was a strange request since what the paper does and doesn’t print isn’t up to me. However, when I discovered that the article was basically about how Americans are hypocritical in how they use freedom of speech, and 80% of our readers are expats, I realized why they asked my opinion.

The article by Wu Guangqiang, one of our regular contributors, was not very good 1) because for a Chinese writer to criticize freedom of speech in the west in a Chinese newspaper is rather hypocritical in and of itself, and 2) since the Chinese writer (and the Chinese media) doesn’t have freedom of speech, he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

I told the editor, though, that as a proponent of freedom of speech, I couldn’t say “don’t run this piece;” everyone should have the right to say whatever they want. But, as a newspaper, I did think it was important for the paper to run op-eds by people whose opinions are based in fact, so if the paper was going to run the piece, they should probably suggest some edits.

Instead what they decided to do was run Wu’s original article (analyzing freedom of speech from a Chinese perspective) and then have me write a complementary piece (analyzing freedom of speech from a Western perspective). I still didn’t think this was the best idea – Wu should have written a piece analyzing freedom of speech in China – I decided to take what I could get.

I have shared my article, “I Am Not Charlie,” below in full, but I would highly encourage you to read Wu Guangqiang’s article, “Free Speech vs. Mutual Respect,” first. 

I Am Not Charlie

AS a person who works in media, I have had more than one person ask me how I feel about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, France, and many have been surprised that I haven’t taken up the “Je suis Charlie” slogan. As a proponent of free speech, I wish the world had chosen a different slogan to show their support for the fallen writers because even though I support their right to say whatever they want, I do not support the world outlook of the writers of Charlie Hebdo.

Let me clarify that I am an American. As such, I don’t speak for all Westerners in how they view or carry out “freedom of speech.” Not all Westerners are the same any more than all Asians are.

What is freedom of speech? I feel the need to explain this because, in all honesty, most people do not understand what “freedom of speech” actually is. In America, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the first amendment to our constitution. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Please note how the amendment states, “Congress shall make no law” — that is important.

In America, the government is not allowed to infringe on your right to say nearly whatever you want. However, it does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid things. For example, if a restaurant owner was to state publicly that he thinks all Asian people are genetically inferior to whites, I have the right to not agree with him. I have the right not to eat at his restaurant. I have the right to disagree with him and even rally protests against his business. If his business should close because no one eats at his restaurant anymore, I would be very happy. Freedom of speech and capitalism walk hand-in-hand. Even though the restaurant owner suffered for using freedom of speech, his rights were not infringed upon because the government was never involved.

This is why I am not Charlie. Charlie Hebdo was known for publishing racist cartoons, something I don’t support. I would never write the things that Charlie Hebdo wrote. I would never buy their magazine. I would never visit their website. I would never forward their cartoons. If Charlie Hebdo were to shut down for lack of support, I would have no problem with that. I don’t believe Charlie Hebdo should say and publish the things that they do.

However, I will always support their right to say and publish whatever they want. Every person in the world should have the right to believe and say what they want without government interference.

The only exception to this is hate speech. By American law, “hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group.” Hate speech goes beyond speech. Hate speech is usually specifically used to incite violence and endangers people’s lives.

Let’s take our restaurant owner for example. He has the right to believe and say that he is against Asians, but if he says that Asians should be dragged out of their homes and shot in the street, then the government should step in to stop him because his words could incite someone to cause bodily harm to another person. This is not a violation of freedom of speech, but is a protection of Asians’ lives.

What about politically correct speech? Politically correct speech is “an attitude or policy of being careful not to offend or upset any group of people in society who are believed to have a disadvantage.” Politically correct speech shows respect for marginalized groups. For example, I don’t use the n-word because I respect all black people. But there is no law that says I can’t use the n-word. I wouldn’t be arrested for using the n-word. I wouldn’t have my Facebook page shut down for using the n-word. Freedom of speech and politically correct speech actually have nothing to do with one another because freedom of speech is guaranteed by the government while politically correct speech is used by individuals to show respect for others.

Freedom of speech is a complicated issue, one wrapped in hundreds of years of history that is intrinsically related to capitalism. It is terrible that so many people in the world are still denied this basic human right and are even killed for exercising it. I am not Charlie Hebdo, but everyone should have the right to be.