In a time when free speech is jeopardized, we ask the more important question: Are we really safe?
I was gutted when I learned that masked men gunned the staff of the satirical French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, to death in their office. I tried to imagine myself at work, with the Esquire Philippines team, in one of our weekly editorial meetings, suddenly held at gunpoint because we released our share of covers people hated. I could imagine myself being forced to my knees, cheek pressed against the cold end of a barrel of a gun, and thinking in my head, “Dear Lord, it was just a cover!”
Charlie Hebdo was murdered precisely so they would stop drawing the things they wanted to draw, and saying the things they wanted to say. We live in a time when free speech is clearly jeopardized.
In the business of publishing, I’ll admit we tiptoe around that space of provocation sometimes. Maybe it’s the only way to get a point across; maybe we need to illicit immediate reaction for a certain issue; maybe we just enjoy the bravado that comes with it. I remember telling my editor once when we were conceptualizing a cover that would tackle “faith,” “If a priest will mention us angrily in his homily…” I quipped, “then we’ve made it.” I meant, of course, that even if it meant we had push certain buttons in order to say what we waned to say, it had to be done, and if it opened up space for public discourse, even better.
But when we in the media (even pawns like us who create irreverent material like satire or entertainment like lifestyle journalism) choose to make statements by pushing buttons, is there a line that is crossed when it becomes not OK? Shouldn’t any responsible publication know what kind of waters they are treading when provocation is involved? Is it possible to curb the rules of this so-called freedom of speech when you have such an influential reach?
Today, we live in a freer market than we ever have in history. The new mediums have allowed discourse and free speech to be open and available to all. The death of Charlie Hebdo alone has contributed to that, allowing competition of opposing sides and ideas. We have so much goddamn freedom to speak!
It applies to you too, in your everyday life. For example, a few weeks back, a sexy starlet who goes by the name Princess Snell posted something on Instagram she would later, gravely regret. Her post was a picture with a statement that read, “If rape is inevitable, lay back and enjoy it.” Her caption: “according to my dad’s lesson: If rape is inevitable, lay back and enjoy it! #ihavethebestadvicer #mydadisthebest hahaha.” The post was hounded with seething comments and the actress, horrified by the barrage of threats and heckling, deleted her post, apologized, and left the city to recover from the emotional trauma that hit her and her family.
We live in a time where influential celebrities, perhaps sometimes incognizant to certain sensibilities, can freely make posts like that in seconds, which, in a place of a free market of ideas, is allowed. We live in a time where we, masked by usernames and profile pictures, can comment indignantly, make harmful threats, and hurl taunts to another, just to counter an argument—or make a point.
That is what freedom of speech allows today, especially in the age of the Internet and social media where there are no rules and everyone is free to say whatever they want to say. “Haters gonna hate,” they say. Accusations can be made without substantial basis, offensive jeers can be thrown without guilt, and ignorant statements can slip through misguided mouths. It’s as filthy, sweaty, and competitive as any real market, this marketplace of free speech we have now, and we can’t take that away from anybody. In the same way, we believe it is this freedom that allows for brilliant, radical ideas when a time and society least expects it, but needs it the most. I guess we need to respect this freedom in all forms and sizes, even the ugly ones.
We cannot force people to have a sense of civility and understanding towards another set of beliefs, just as we could not force Charlie Hebdo to adhere to the sensitivities of those they were making fun of. But is it wrong to hope? When we ask people to think before they speak, or to re-think something they said because it may have been wrong, are we already threatening the realms of this so-called freedom of speech?
It’s nice to hope that man is capable of such… I don’t know… decency? Instead of just flagging their “freedom of speech” badges in the air, running wild and free and hiding behind the belief that, “ah well I’m allowed to say whatever the hell I want to say in whatever way I want to say it so nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!”
Isn’t there a reason why we squirm in our seat today when the term “n****” is tossed around, unlike the time when the very term was coined? Or a reason why “faggot” no longer escapes people’s lips so callously. It is naïve to argue that “freedom of speech” cannot be curbed for the sake of “not hurting other people’s feelings,” because this “freedom” is not as absolute as we seem to make it to be, especially when people are killed for enjoying this freedom. No, they did not deserve to die. Yes, we are free to say what we like. But this is no black-and-white case, and when a tragedy like this happens, we must push ourselves to ask, why?
Regardless, I stand behind “Je Suis Charlie,” as I believe do many, not to campaign or to celebrate their work as brilliant satire, but I cry “Je Suis Charlie” as a campaign to celebrate humanity—because Charlie Hebdo did not deserve an ending like this.