The very first time I heard about “freedom of speech” was during the so called “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine by 2004, which was quite shamefully late as I was a teenager at that time. It was a very important period for Ukraine, as people were starting to hope for democracy, and ideas like “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” that might seem very basic in Western Europe, were begged for at every street corner.
But the euphoria did not last long and our hopes were rapidly deceived. Soon the very high popular expectations of drastic changes were replaced by an ongoing strong sense of disappointment that was mirrored in the 2010 elections, as the dictator Yanukovich was elected. At that time, I was working as a journalist as I naively wanted to enjoy freedom of speech through my profession. However, I quickly realised that it was not the case: we could talk about freedom of speech, but could not exercise it. Criticizing the government, the powerful oligarchs or the deep links between the Church and the political power was simply forbidden.
That’s why I rapidly became an activist. Whereas journalism did not allow me to practice free speech, FEMEN activists have been arrested numerous times, daily threatened, severely beaten on a regular basis, and even tortured in Belarus for their protests and ideas.
I had to flee my own country for practicing freedom of speech.
However, whereas all this seems comprehensible to you, it is only the case because the countries I am talking about are neither stable nor democratic, and are very often linked to political violence and corruption in your minds.
You will probably innocently think that it is not the same where you live, and many will disagree if I claim that thinking that we can fully enjoy freedom of speech in Europe is an illusion. Nevertheless, it is simply the pitiful truth.
When we discuss freedom of speech, there will always be this opinion being: “yes, we all agree with freedom of speech, but…”.
This is how it was for Charlie Hebdo. When their offices were burnt in 2011, many declared “but they deserved it”. After the recent attack, millions mobilized to oppose terrorism, but many were still publicly saying “but they were too provocative” or “but they offended”.
Therefore I must say I am against this argument of not doing or saying something because it might “hurt the feelings” or “offend”, as it is just a biased way of limiting one’s freedom. It was for example recently used in Russia to adopt a law against “gay propaganda” as “homosexuality can be offensive to some people”.
The only limit to freedom of speech should be when someone could get physically hurt, in which case it would not be freedom of speech anymore, but a crime.
We should not consider the possibility of offending one’s feelings to express ourselves, as if such a thing is taken into consideration, it undeniably limits our freedom of speech.
Charlie Hebdo, FEMEN, or Raif Badawi are targeted simply because our voices are way too lonely, because we are too easy to spot amongst our hidden supporters whom remain silent even though they are sharing our ideas. If every newspaper published caricatures regardless of hurting one’s feeling, instead of blurring them, we would not be mourning Charlie Hebdo.
Moreover, freedom of speech should allow us to criticise or mock religions as any other idea or ideology, and that is exactly what Charlie Hebdo did.
I oppose self-censorship in the name of not hurting one’s feelings, as it hurts my feelings of free speech.
I oppose the constant demands of political correctness towards some ideologies as it would be being too compliant, and against my freedom of speech.
I dream that one day all liberals will be as visible as they were during the march after Charlie Hebdo’s attack, and that for this reason we will not need to lose lives anymore.
Freedom of speech is under attack from extremists, but you shall not deny your own responsibility, as your responsibility is to live with the illusion that you have freedom of speech, rather than using it.