Religion, Free Speech & Freedom from Offense

When I was a teenager I worked as a photojournalist and through that experience I learned just how important it is that the public, and the press in particular be able to speak openly, freely, and without restriction.

I also learned how important discretion is — I routinely worked events where people died, those people had families and they would see the photographs that documented the end of a life. Photos chosen for publishing had to be carefully picked, making the wrong choice could offend some, and truly hurt others. I saw people break down and cry when seeing photos I took — I saw the results of brash carelessness on families that were already hurting, already devastated.

I once was tasked with documenting a hate crime — a black effigy hung from a tree, followed shortly thereafter by a body found in a river — hands bound, and clearly related. People were scared, the mock hanging was a warning, and the body found proved that the threat was real. What gets shown and what doesn’t in cases like this is a very difficult choice. On one hand you risk offended and inciting fear — maybe even panic, on the other, you withhold useful information, stifle discussion, and risk leaving the truth sitting in a box, hidden from the world.

For all of the bad, there was also good — lives changed, hard questions asked, reforms enacted, true change made. This wasn’t done without stepping on toes though, hard decisions had to be made to find the right balance.

Making people comfortable is easy — give them what they want and no more. To make people think though, requires making them uncomfortable, requires pushing them outside of their comfort zone — and occasionally, offending them.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo

I firmly believe that journalism, legitimate journalism, is among the most critical tasks in a free society. Shining a light on the good and the bad — the eyes and ears of the people, too often the last chance for justice. When questions can’t be asked, when public figures are put beyond satire and debate, when some topics are unquestionably untouchable, then freedom dies. Slowly at first, then the line inches ever forward until the press is nothing but a mouthpiece for their puppet masters and feeding the public little more than entertainment – no challenges, no discomfort, no thought required entertainment.

Charlie Hebdo made a habit of making people uncomfortable — they attacked everyone and everything in power, they left nothing untouched. In doing so they offended almost everyone — some got mad and stomped away; others took it as a chance to reflect, not only on the statement, but their own reactions, feelings, and beliefs; a few though decided that they needed to die for it.

Those at Charlie Hebdo worked despite threats and attacks, they continued in the face of danger. Every issue published was an act of bravery — sometimes tasteless, sometimes wantonly offensive, but still an act of bravery.

In an effort to silence the criticism of their preferred historical figure, a small group following an extreme and radical interpretation of a religion, took it upon themselves to silence journalists and artists by force. The goal though, went far beyond Charlie Hebdo — the attack was meant to send a wave of fear and terror throughout the world and leave journalists too afraid to say anything or risk a similar fate.

In the hours after the attack, there were clear indications that the extremists that sought to censor the world, may have actually achieved that goal. Publications around the world censored the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, an act I consider to be cowardice, and willing, knowing capitulation. In the face of danger, some will choose to be brave and stand for what they believe — others will abandon what they believe readily when faced with the threat, or even the idea of danger.

Nothing is beyond ridicule, no person above satire — not political leaders, not Muhammad, not Jesus, not Zoroaster, not Zeus, not Ra, not Utu.


Robert Graham posted an image on Twitter that immediately gave me mixed feelings; I agreed and disagreed all at the same time. On one hand, the image is the very definition of satire — it’s a strong point on the perception that these religious extremists are leaving many with. On the other hand, it could further inflame the situation, insulting some and adding more energy to those that have shown they will not be subject to rational thought. It was also an act of defiance, a statement that he would not be censored, and a recommendation that others should follow his example and show that the world will not allow a group of extremists to define what’s acceptable.

For those that are offended by this image, I’m sorry that you feel as you do — though I will offer no apology for posting it. Offending for the sake of offense should be avoided — and is an act I disagree with, offending for the sake of making a point though, is sometimes necessary.

The point here is clear — irrational extremists are acting in unimaginable violence against those that they disagree with, and in doing so, branding the religion as one of violence and hate. This is a fact that everyone needs to understand.

Religious Violence

Violence and religion have went hand in hand throughout recorded history. Christianity has mostly moved away from violence and many of its ancient prejudices (though certainly not all) — something Islam is still struggling with, based on the extreme views and actions of not only terrorist organizations, but governments.

While extremists have done much to harm Islam, there seems to be a pervasive penchant for violence among the more ‘conservative’ Islamic countries — this acceptance of violence and frequent perversions of justice have also done much to make the world question the Islamic commitment to peace.

For me, as an atheist, knowing that there are thirteen Islamic countries where I could be put to death for my lack of faith certainly makes me question just how much peace factors into Islamic views.

While most Muslims are peaceful, the large numbers that espouse peace through forced conformity and violence taint the view of the entire religion.

Freedom from Offense

One of the most bizarre and damaging perversions on the innate right to free speech, is that there is an implied inverse right to not be exposed to anything offensive. Yet this fictitious right to not be offended is antithetical to freedom of speech – you can have only one of the two.

A right to not be offended is a personal right that would trump the rights of all others — freedom of speech does not imply that anyone must listen, only that you have the right to speak. A right to not be offended would require others to not speak if you didn’t like what they had to say. Such a right is a logical impossibility — if we accept that there is truly an innate right to free speech, then there is no overriding inverse.

So the reality is simple — there are times to preserve the critical and innate right to free speech, that some will be offended.

One challenge for a journalist is to effectively get a message across that challenges without offending more than absolutely necessary. I can’t say if Charlie Hebdo crossed that line, but even if they did, they were within their rights.

All Speech Has Value

One final note, inspired by a friend, is that all speech — from the inane and ignorant to true hate speech can have some value. It provides insight, understanding, and perspective that would be missed otherwise.

For those that don’t share perspective with the speaker, such speech that many consider worthless can be a learning experience. You may never agree with them, but at least you can better understand them, and that may lead to clarity.

Embrace the speech that you disagree with and better understand the people behind a perspective that is new to you — it’s a chance to expand your mind, and maybe even bridge a gap and create new understanding.