We Are Not All Charlie: A Chinese View on the West's Free Speech Debate

02/04/2015 06:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015
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SHANGHAI -- Globally, the brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo and its staff on Jan. 7 has been widely condemned. As the new editor of this weekly magazine stated in the wake of this tragedy, "a cartoon doesn't kill." It is totally unacceptable to suppress the freedom of press by conducting acts of terror and slaughter. It is perfectly understandable that not all would appreciate the style of Charlie Hebdo -- a style that may offer humor while disregarding religious sensitivity. However, this doesn't justify the use of bloodshed as a means to unleash one's dissatisfaction.

With this in mind, the massive parade in Paris on Jan. 12th, featuring more than 40 world leaders, has sent a strong signal that the international community is behind France. The global solidarity as shown in Paris and elsewhere shows that the world will not be intimidated by extremism. In this spirit, Parisians, Europeans and many of their supporters in the other parts of the world have voiced, "We are all Charlie."

By making such a statement, one demonstrates his or her political belief in democracy, freedom of media and expression in particular. This is particularly true for many French and Europeans as they are convinced of political secularism. To them religion shall yield to democracy and no one should use religious reason to suppress the freedom and liberty of a society, which they hold dear in their heart. It is interesting to note that even though the U.S. is sympathetic of French cultural pluralism and in full support of the French crackdown on terrorism and radicalism, America has some nuanced but important differences with France and Europe in theory and practice. On the one hand, the U.S. views itself as the world champion of democracy and freedom, but it has placed an emphasis on religious tolerance -- and makes a special effort not to touch upon areas where religious sensitivities are at stake. On the other hand, Americans tend to be sensitive in operating their own media industry, especially when sarcasm or humor is involved.

Therefore, American cultural pluralism has virtually imposed certain requirements of self-censorship. In print satire, the U.S. has its own magazines such as MAD, Monocle, The Realist and The National Lampoon etc. in the past, especially in their peak time of the 1950s-1970s. Though some of their cartoons went as far as to depict rather sensitive areas such as politics, sex and death, they often kept a cool distance from religion.

In response to the Charlie Hebdo incident, The New York Times and Time magazine have lately referenced statements such as "we are not Charlie" or "we are not all Charlie," which differentiate themselves clearly from their European counterparts. There seems to be a major difference here between America and Europe -- though there ought to be a political freedom of speech and media, there should also be room for cultural and religious sensitivity. When clear disagreement exists between different cultures, it would be rational not to act in a way that could possibly be viewed as offensive to the other.

As per Islamic tradition, it is not proper, if not prohibited, to portray the Prophet Muhammad. Non-Muslims should pay due respect to such a tradition. It is not proper to argue that all could portray each other's saint, so this is a trivial matter. As culture and religion is nurtured with time and likely to spread across the border, a single act of disrespect could well incite a trans-border collective response. Arguing that the others should respect one's own right not to respect them doesn't seem extremely logical. Instead, it could well incite ethnic discord or even confrontation.

This said, even "disrespect" of one's own values should not be met with radical means, including violence. That is why globally France has been sympathized with. Nevertheless, such comfort has to be properly received as it contains the message of tolerance. To the surprise of many, Charlie Hebdo reprinted the issue that evoked the terrorist attack, and published a new issue that portrays the Prophet again. Legally this has violated no restriction, but culturally the French cartoon magazine, with many supporters behind it, contrasts a lot with the political code that many Americans have followed.

The aforementioned difference between the American and European response to Charlie Hebdo illustrates the boundary of freedom -- the liberty of media may not go without a limit. At a political level, the fundamental value of democracy lies in the essential assumption of mutual respect, as any minority or ethnic group has a right to express. But in terms of social and economic impact, any such expression has to be weighed against cost. An unchecked freedom could likely lead to social unrest, so one has to balance rights and obligation.

Such common sense actually applies widely. Many countries have adopted media censorship on certain topics such as extremism and pornography. But on other culturally sensitive areas, it is more up to an individual to allow self-censorship and the government needs to encourage proper balance of tolerance and freedom. A mature society has to be able to get the best balance of these two, rather than be harmed by unlimited liberty and unbalanced tolerance.

Thus, to be a responsible Charlie might be more important than to be a mere Charlie, which stresses an abstract concept of freedom. Appreciating the right of liberty, while being sensible of each other's culture, brings more benefit and less harm than otherwise. The truth is neither "We are all Charlie," nor "We are not Charlie," but "We are not all Charlie."

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