Liberty in the Real World

jew hebdoThis past Thursday morning, at just about the time people on this side of the planet were learning of the savage attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I was in a Q & A session at The Manila Times College with a group of visiting students from Thammasat University in Thailand. The group of about 30 – mostly third- and fourth-year students and all Thais, naturally, except for a trio of young ladies from Indonesia – were in town primarily to attend a youth conference on ASEAN integration, and the majority of them were students of international relations or political science.

One of the questions asked by the students was about the state of press freedom in the Philippines, which was poignantly appropriate, and not only because of the big international news of the day; just that morning, yet another local journalist – a tabloid writer and radio news anchor in Bataan – was murdered by cycle killers. Press freedom is obviously an issue in this country, not only because of the all-too-frequent attacks against media people, but also because this is one of the few places where libel is a criminal offense. The latter circumstance is one our visiting students could relate to; Thailand, of course, has strict laws against anything perceived to be offensive to the King, and Indonesia’s laws accommodate restrictions against perceived offenses to Muslim sensibilities.

Those kinds of institutional limitations imposed against freedom of expression are actually just imperfect reactions to the sort of social resistance to it represented by the spectacularly visible horror of the Paris attack, and on smaller but perversely more ubiquitous scale by the not-infrequent attacks against individual journalists in the Philippines. The underlying logic is that preventing criticism and ridicule of certain threads of the social fabric eliminates one source of disorder. It makes the assumption that some things are in fact sacred – for example, Thais’ reverence for their monarch, Indonesians’ deference to the perspective of their country’s major religion, and Filipinos’ overweening sense of self-worth.

The opposite point of view, expressed by the narrative that dominates the public discussion in the wake of the Paris tragedy, is that freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the press, should be absolute. The underlying logic in that is the existence of that freedom prevents greater disorder, because those threads of the social fabric are harmful – obeisance to royalty takes away the right to self-determination, Islamic morals are discriminatory and encourage a certain level of violence, and an excessive consciousnesshead selfie of personality encourages impunity.

Neither perspective is quite right, but both have a certain intellectual appeal. The latter is based on a very visceral response; whatever we may believe about the context of the event, we are repulsed by its extreme asymmetry. The assumption that some limitations must exist is based on reason, faulty though it may be in some cases – any event must have a cause, after all.

The absolutist perspective condemns that as victim-blaming, which is exactly what it is because it could not be anything else. No matter how sensitive one may be to the barbarity of the crime, examining the motivation for it always leads to assigning part of the liability to the victim. It may be something as unwitting as being in wrong place at the wrong time – that seems to have been the unfortunate fate of the French hostages at the end of the rampage that began with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices on Wednesday – but the inescapable reality is that if the victim had done something differently, he would have not been killed.

On the other hand, the flaw in the more idealistic perspective is just that, its idealism. There is the world as it ought to be, and then there is the world as it is: Making judgments about what the limits of others’ sensibilities should be may not be expressed in the same sort of appalling violence as that carried out by Paris’ self-styled defenders of Islam, but the underlying attitude in some ways just as intractably separates people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ because a universal benchmark for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ doesn’t really exist; all humans can rely on for guidance in how to behave towards one another is the difference between “what I believe” and “what the other believes.”

The media as a profession has to wrestle with humanity’s problematic reality every day, because the occupation forces a trade-off; one either takes the risk of provoking some degree of violent reaction, or takes the risk of compromising one’s own ideals and possibly even the objective truth by accepting limitations to freedom of expression. Making the right choice seems almost impossible. Of course the world would be a better place if media practitioners – or anyone else, for that matter – did not have to make that choice, but it is what it is.

My comment to the visiting students the other day was that press freedom in the Philippines and perhaps everywhere does not seem to be matched by a complementary level of press responsibility. “Responsibility” in this case cannot be defined by something as simple (and misguided) as prescriptions like “avoid needless sacrilege” or “don’t be a character assassin,” but rather “don’t be reckless.” Journalism, in whatever form it takes, only works when it tells the story effectively. How it accomplishes that must be left to the judgment of the storyteller – judgment that in turn cannot be effective if it is not made within the context of real-world conditions, with an understanding of the implications of framing a story in a certain way.

Hypothesizing the motivations of storytellers whose story got them killed is a speculative trap; to presume that the murdered artists at Charlie Hebdo did tell the story they had to tell in exactly the way they intended and clearly understood what it might provoke is more respectful of those who can no longer speak for themselves, and is logically more secure. Their work, while vulgar, does have a clear point.

I do not believe that a brutally lethal assault is ever a proportional response to whatever perceived harm a cartoon could cause; satirical doodles do not in any sense deliver the same sort of terrorism as automatic weapons fire. Obviously the world has a long way to go towards taking in that bit of news, and that’s a shame. But it’s the world we’ve got to work with.