Pope Francis, Charlie Hebdo and the limits of speech

Do rude cartoons about Mohammed and Islam make society less civil? Do religious beliefs deserve special protection from criticism?

Pope Francis / Photo: Catholic Church, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
Pope Francis / Photo: Catholic Church, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, January 17, 2015 — Pope Francis, talking to reporters about the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, observed “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.”

The pope made his comments off-the-cuff, during a flight from Sri Lanka to Manila. He was describing the difficulty of reconciling civil society and human dignity with insults. He pointed out that if travel companion Alberto Gazparri were to insult Francis’s mother, he should not be surprised to receive from Francis a punch in the nose.

The fighting words doctrine is a well-understood limitation on free speech in American constitutional law. It was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1942, in its unanimous opinion on Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. The justices opined:

“These include … insulting or ‘fighting words,’ those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

“Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument.”

The meaning of “offensive” or “insulting” isn’t up to the offended person to decide, or public speech would be nearly impossible:

“The word ‘offensive’ is not to be defined in terms of what a particular addressee thinks. … The test is what men of common intelligence would understand would be words likely to cause an average addressee to fight … The statute, as construed, does no more than prohibit the face-to-face words plainly likely to cause a breach of the peace by the addressee.”

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, we might ask whether the “average addressee” is an average Frenchman, an average Muslim, or an average Islamic State jihadist.

The doctrine of fighting words is still in force in much of the world, though its scope in the U.S. has been limited by subsequent courts. For instance, flag burning, though deeply offensive, is protected speech; simple offensiveness is not sufficient to turn that act into “fighting words.”

Allowing that Pope Francis spoke off-the-cuff and inelegantly, we can view his comments as a sincere observation that fighting words exist, and that deliberate insults are inconsistent with a civil society. But from there it takes only a slight nudge to send his words careening in directions we hope he did not intend.

One of those directions is to conclude that the Islamist terrorists who committed the atrocities in France were justified, their behavior having been invited by insults from Charlie Hebdo. It would also justify threats by the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or Iran’s mullahs to kill anyone who insults them by insulting their prophet.

Francis made clear that he does not believe that. A “punch in the nose” is not a massacre or an expression of bloodlust, and the pope’s urge to punch people who insult his mother in the nose does not mean that his mother is now legally protected from insults.

It also doesn’t mean that if the pope does punch Gazparri in the nose, that Gazparri can’t file charges or sue the pope for damages. The fighting words doctrine will provide the pope different levels of defense in different jurisdictions, but he’d be better off punching Gazparri in Canada than in the United States.

Another direction the pope’s comments might accidentally take is to the idea that we should respect other people’s beliefs. That’s not true at all. I think that some religions are simple lunacy, and some people think that of mine. I think that some political ideas are idiotic, and again, that thinking is reciprocated. Idiotic beliefs deserve no respect.

Beliefs should be subjected to skepticism, not given respect. We often respect people in spite of their beliefs. Our parents may hold political and religious beliefs that we not only don’t respect, but hold in contempt. If they loved us, though, and tried their best to raise us and prepare us to be independent, they have earned our respect, even if some of their beliefs have not.

The same is true of friends and colleagues. They often earn our respect, even when their beliefs are absurd. If we don’t belittle their beliefs in front of them, it doesn’t mean that we respect their beliefs, but only that we respect them and appreciate the person who has been formed by the beliefs.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons weren’t about disrespect for Muslim beliefs, but about disrespect for Muslim culture and Muslims in general. The same is true of their cartoons skewering Catholicism, Judaism, and political parties. The question critics should ask isn’t whether Charlie Hebdo should respect Mohammed’s teachings (why should it?), but whether Islam and its works today deserve respect.

Some of us hold true beliefs that deserve respect while others hold stupid beliefs that deserve contempt. We all embrace some measure of truth and some measure of folly. The problem is that we often decide whether to respect others based on labels, based on their beliefs and not on the good or bad they’ve done.

Muslims, like Christians, are good or bad, sometimes both in the same breath. Some of them have earned respect for who they are, and some have earned contempt. Rather than respecting people (or not) for who they are, though, we often respect them (or not) for their religion, their political party, or their views on issues we feel strongly about.

Charlie Hebdo had every right to print anti-Muslim cartoons. Nothing justifies last week’s bloodbath. Artists and writers have a right to be provocative. They have no right to be respected for it, though — no more than the pope does for his Catholicism.

It isn’t your beliefs that should matter to us, but the kind of man or woman they make of you, and whether they lead you to make the world a better place. That’s the test to which we should put Islam, Charlie Hebdo, and Pope Francis, in spite of their charmingly silly beliefs.


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  • Peter LaMarck

    Unlike prior presidents, our resident marxist agitator has deliberately avoided religious references in his Thanksgiving speeches.

  • Mike A’Doodle

    The level of vitriolic hatred for Christians espoused by Mikey Weinstein and the deranged Bolsheviks at the MRFF is almost comical.