In the final year of my undergraduate degree at Wilfrid Laurier University, I was the Senior News Editor of The Cord, our university’s weekly newspaper. I decided to kick off my tenure with an editorial that castigated a number of the sacred cows of campus life, most notably our cult-like indoctrination known as Frosh Week.
For a few days after the publication of the editorial, perhaps weeks, I heard enough rumours of ill-intent that it seemed feasible that someone might take a swing at me or, at minimum, say something nasty or threatening. Thankfully, no one responded to my editorial with any physical violence, and, as far as I can remember, there wasn’t any verbal onslaught nasty or sustained enough to warrant committing it to memory. All in all, it was a tiny storm, in a tiny southern Ontario teapot, and yet, the stress of writing and publishing an opinion piece that I knew would not be well-received was very very real.
Because my teapot stress was so real, I can’t imagine the kind of stress that would be involved with the creation and publication of work that led to death threats from the very kinds of people with the will and the means to act on them. I can’t fathom the courage and the strength of the conviction that motivated the staff of Charlie Hebdo to go to work each and every day. I am as affected by the murders of these people as it is possible for me to be affected by the murder of people who are strangers to me.
So, as is my nature, I turn to words, and to be properly respectful of the courage of those who are dead and those who survive, I feel they need to be honest, rather than edifying.
The pen is not, never has been, and never will be mightier than the sword. These murders demonstrate that brutal fact all too clearly. A pen is no match for a high-powered assault rifle, a sword, a club, a knife, a fist, or a well-timed lawsuit. Cartoons, words, art, and film — any and all forms of expression — are essential, but their power is only instrumental. The true power of the artifacts of free expression is their ability to motivate people to action. Pens won’t, on their own, stop intolerance, hate, and the violence that it breeds. Only we — living, breathing people — can do that.
Violent murder is the most brutal means to suppress freedom of expression, but there are many other ways to suppress it, and many are at work in our — supposedly free — communities today. Inequality of opportunity, in all its forms — social, cultural, and economic — is perhaps the most common, least visible, and most effective means to suppress free expression. Criminal sanction works well, too, especially when we criminalize the legitimate expression of those people we deem as “other.” There are also many economically violent ways to curtail free expression. I wonder, for example, how many people in Ottawa are afraid to share their honest and legitimate political opinion for fear of losing their jobs or the funding for their NGO.
These murders are not an attack against cartoonists or reporters or writers or artists, they are an attack against all of us. Yes, those who create in the public eye are on the vanguard of the everyday struggle to protect and promote freedom of expression, but it is as fundamental a human right as we possess. Freedom of expression and freedom of religion, arguably, is the very same right by a different name, and the right from which all our other liberties spring. An attack on freedom of expression is an attack on freedom of religion, vice versa, and all of us. Unfortunately, extremists of all stripes don’t care about either of those freedoms, nor much about us, but we must care about and defend both of those freedoms.
Let us mourn those who have been murdered, and let us honour their courage and the power of their conviction by defending the right of all people to express themselves freely. The suppression of free speech, and the persecution of those who exercise it, isn’t something that is done only by those extremists. Our extremists do it, too. We need to stop extremists of all stripes, theirs and ours, and even the extremist that sometimes lives in each and everyone of us.
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