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No, we are not all Charlie Hebdo

January 8, 2015

It’s hard to disagree with all the pious statements from the press and politicians in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. But the sad likelihood is that the vast majority of people who pick up their newspapers or check out their favourite news websites this morning will sigh, maybe feel a frisson of fear and move on.

The victims happen to be journalists, which guarantees a reaction from the media. Columnists and leader writers around the world are lamenting this latest attack on freedom of expression, while politicians are busily urging the social media to clamp down on extremists who use that freedom to recruit for their causes.

Meanwhile a cold snap has blanketed much of the Middle East with snow, and millions of refugees are shivering in their tents. Atrocities against ordinary people are taking place in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia on a daily basis. Most people in those countries don’t care much about the freedom of expression. They want to live their daily lives in peace. They want enough to eat, clothes for their young, gainful employment. Talk to them about Charlie Hebdo and they would say welcome to our world, where fear is just around the corner.

Most of us in the west couldn’t give a stuff about freedom of expression either, because we take it for granted. And anyway, many might reply if asked whether such things matter, do we really have freedom of the press in our countries, where so much of the media is owned by so few? And what about democracy? A choice between one bunch of wasters and another, they might say.

What use is freedom of expression if all that talking doesn’t stop a tiny minority of people from owning and controlling the vast majority of the world’s resources and wealth? If the votes we cast are of no more significance than a speck of dust in the wind?

Actually it means everything, if we would only appreciate it, but most people are not prepared to defend to the death the right of other people to say what they want. Ask most people about whether magazines should be allowed to publish provocative cartoons, and they will say sure, but those guys at Charlie Hebdo should have known the risks they ran. They were foolhardy, and look at the consequences for their families.

Freedom of expression certainly means an awful lot to me. It allows me to write about bigotry, hypocrisy, the idiocy of bankers and the incompetence of politicians, but also to celebrate the goodness that can be found in the most unpromising situations. I try not to pass judgement on other people’s faith, but their behaviour is fair game. Equally I don’t publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, not because I’m afraid of some guy with a balaclava and an AK-47 knocking on my door, but because I have friends who would be offended by them.

I don’t believe that the pen is mightier than the sword. The two co-exist. The one feeds the other. More powerful than either is human behaviour – both for good and ill. The power of personal example – witnessed directly or indirectly, described by stories in oral as well as written tradition – dictates behaviour. We are inspired by tales of prophets, kings and heroes, by acts of kindness and courage that we encounter in our daily lives, by behaviour that causes us to re-think our prejudices.

The freedom to be inspired, to choose our own stories, to make our own minds up and to follow our own paths is what changes the world for better or for worse, not the freedom to insult and denigrate. And because most of us are followers, not leaders, we are not all Charlie Hebdo, sad to say, even if each time a Charlie Hebdo is snuffed out those more important freedoms are further eroded.

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