‘Je Suis Charlie’ is a great slogan but it reminds me of some of the phrases we use in marketing. It’s emotive but its meaning is not exactly clear. If I’m Charlie, am I a defender of free speech or simply someone who likes to offend? And if I defend free expression, where do I draw the line?
Many of the best advertising slogans are hard to pin down. Take the strap lines of the three big sportswear companies. ‘Just Do It'(do what?), ‘I am what I am'(so?), ‘Impossible is nothing'(really?) The answers don’t matter. It’s the feeling that counts when you’re trying to sell something. Meaning is more important when it comes to freedom of expression.
It’s great to see so many people protesting at the Islamist terrorists’ attempt to stifle free speech in France but, as we can see from the attendance of Saudi representatives, everyone is in favour of free expression but everyone draws a line somewhere. Those lines can be a long way apart. The latter view would seem to be, ‘It’s OK for governments to censor free speech but not terrorists.’ The editor of Charlie Hebdo took the prophetic view that he would rather die standing than live on his knees.
I take the view that when someone says something deliberately designed to provoke violence, like calling for attacks on minorities, they should be stopped but otherwise ithey can say what they like as far as I am concerned, no matter how offensive they are. This is sometimes known as the ‘no-one should be free to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre’ viewpoint.
There’s undoubtedly a lot of hypocrisy over the matter of censoring free expression. Forget the Saudi government, I’m thinking of the many recent occasions when we in the UK have censored the arts.
It’s only ten years since a Birmingham theatre cancelled Behzti, a play written by a Sikh woman which depicted a rape in a Sikh temple. This was a reaction to demonstrations, some of them violent. In the same year, the tour of Jerry Springer The Opera was cancelled after protests by a Christian group that believed it to be blasphemous.
Just last year, The City, a ‘hip-hop opera’ at the Edinburgh Festival was banned after pro-Palestinian protests against the theatre company who were in receipt of an arts subsidy from the Israeli government. Clacton-on-Sea removed a Banksy mural depicting pigeons waving anti-immigrant placards at a lone swallow, lest it offend immigrants who might not grasp the ironic humour. London’s Barbican Centre closed Exhibit B, a critically acclaimed piece of anti-racist performance art, because some people protested that it was racist.
There’s always a reason: a concern for the safety of the venue’s staff, the unwillingness of the police to allocate sufficient resources to defend it, not wanting to offend a section of the local community. The reason doesn’t matter, this is all self censorship because of pressure from humourless people who won’t tolerate those who have a different view to them.
If we really believe that we are all Charlie, we owe it to those who were murdered in Paris to stop giving in to people who are offended by someone else’s free expression.
This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn. A version appeared on the Daily Echo website.