By Charles Sarvan –
Now that the election is over, I take it readers will once again be able to move from an exclusive and narrow focus on Sri Lanka to current international issues. Besides, freedom of expression is no less important a subject to Sri Lankans than it is to others.
The storm presently raging over a pictorial depiction of the Prophet Mohammed led me to wonder whether the doctrine or principle of double effect will be useful here. The doctrine is associated with Thomas Aquinas(1225-1274) who, following Aristotle, held that the universie is so organised that everything has a goal or purpose. The double-effect principle posits that an action (provided it is morally good or neutral) which causes serious harm may be permissible if it is a side effect of promoting some end that is good. It would not be permissible to cause the same harm as a means to a good end – but only as a side or double effect. Intentionality is paramount; one may foresee the possibility of harm but not intend it. What was the intention of Charlie Hebdo in publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed? What good did they set out to achieve? What possible harm did they foresee but not intend? Pope Francis used an analogy: if you deliberately, rather than unintentionally, grossly insult something the other holds sacred or very dear and precious, it is reasonable to anticipate a violent reaction.
Those with a cynical mind might say the main ‘good‘ Charlie Hebdo aimed at was financial profit. Their sales, it is reported, were down to 60,000 and an option on the table was to cease publication. If so, violent Moslem reaction has not only saved Charlie Hebdo but boosted sales which now soar to something in the region of six million with people scurrying around trying to secure a copy as if it were some kind of trophy to be displayed and bequeathed.
Those with a Machiavellian mindset may see Charlie Hebdo‘s real and deliberate intention as that of provocation: Charlie Hebdo is aware that in some respects the Prophet is to Moslems what the Virgin Mary is to devout Roman Catholics; they know there are some Moslems who are quick to take offense and to react wildly, violently and disproportionately, thereby bringing discredit to the religion they think they are defending. This in turn would confirm negative notions of Islam and Moslems in general; excite and deepen division. (Interestingly, there haven’t been so far any righteous demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and in the other oil-rich states. It appears that when it comes to business, and even more to tacit or overt political alliances with the West which ensure continued survival, the Prophet ceases to have priority. Besides, these dictatorships fear that demonstrations for God and His Prophet can be turned easily into demands for democracy.)
John Milton, 1608–1674, in the sonnet ‘On his Blindness‘ wrote that God does not need human praise. His state is “kingly“, and He has thousands of heavenly beings who at his command speed over land and sea. If God does not need human praise can He, on the other hand, feel insulted by the words and actions of mere humans? Isn’t God beyond mortal besmirching? Won’t He take revenge in His own time and manner? (As Aristotle comments in his ‘Politics‘ (Book 1), just as we imagine gods in our human shape, so we also imagine their way of life to be like that of ours.) Then, if God is beyond both praise and insult, is the fury at insult to ‘our‘ God or gods at root but human and personal? In other words, does “Our God (or Prophet) has been insulted“ really translate into “We have been insulted“?
Apart from cynical and Machiavellian readings, the most charitable explanation is that Charlie Hebdo was demonstrating the right to, and the value of, free-speech: a cartoon is speech in visual, rather than in audible, form. But freedom of expression, like other forms of freedom, is not license and has its limits. If freedom is seen as the right or ability to do something, then we have several freedoms which we choose not to exercise. A man may have the freedom (here, power or ability) to beat his wife because he is physically stronger but most men don’t exercise that ‘freedom‘ because it is morally reprehensible and utterly contemptible. As for the limits of freedom, many countries prohibit what is termed ‘hate speech‘. In certain countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) disrespect of Islam can lead to severe punishment. It is an offense in Thailand to insult the royal family. In Germany, it is illegal to question the historical veracity of the Holocaust, not even in a paper published in an obscure recondite journal.
It is said that democracy is not an end in itself but a means, a state of affairs where individuals can freely discover and extend their human potential. Similarly, can one say that freedom of speech does not exist by and for itself but so that, through free expression and the exchange of thought, society works for the betterment of the common good? If so, the question must arise: Has Charlie Hebdo availing itself of freedom of speech led to a better state of affairs? Is the world a better and more ‘beautiful‘ place? Perhaps, an answer will be that, despite the loss of human life; despite the material damage and destruction; despite the increase in anger and the worsening of inter-faith and international relations, finally, perhaps in years to come, the world will be a better place where there is no physical reaction to verbal insult; a world of free-speech without any ‘off-limits‘? (Whether we would wish the last is another matter.) Did Charlie Hebdo foresee the present (and continuing if not, one fears, worsening) ‘evil‘ but not intend it? Or was its action cynical, callous and irresponsible?
I don’t know the thinking and motives of Charlie Hebdo: the above is merely shared speculation and not assertion.