France; Freedom of Speech/Expression; Humour and Irony; The Blasphemy Law

France, and the Value of its Ideas and Culture

France is a country I’ve adored since I was a very young teenager and first began learning its language. I was introduced to Camus, consumed voraciously films such as Amelie and La Haine, and enviously viewed the architecture and countryside of the country. Its cultural gems that managed to transcend national borders offered a glimpse of a country which was so endearing I ached to go there as soon as I could. And when I had the chance I did so, and have been back many times since. Travelling around the south of France with a tent as a 19-year-old was an experience that had a big impact on me.

For all the beauty of the country, what truly stood out was the lifestyle, the attitude towards every day life. I used to enjoy the frank and often humorous manner the characters in French films spoke. I wondered if I’d be disappointed when I arrived but to the contrary. The people are thoroughly welcoming, very humorous and honest, and as I said – quite frank. Theirs is a society based around and on the idea free expression. The country has a rich history on the canvas and on the page.

It also has a rich history of dissent, a facet of its identity it rightly prides itself on. And that transgressional nature is something they value almost above all else. It’s something that belongs to the core of being French. Their art, cinema and music is by nature transgressional, and often experimental. For these reasons it progresses in cultural spheres. And it’s precisely why the country is at the forefront of art, philosophy and literature. For these reasons it needs to be cherished and protected. I for one place a real importance on protecting its traditions, values and lifestyle.

Free Expression, Free Speech, Humour and Irony

Yesterday’s attacks cut to the very core of France’s values and that is why it is a cataclysmic event. The violent reaction to the cartoons defies everything France, and we, hold dear to without realising it.

Free expression, free speech, the right to humour, the right to criticise, the right to mock, the right to an opinion however erroneous it may seem. Humour and irony are things Irish people would be lost without. We’d feel it like a missing limb if those things were eradicated from our society. We ‘have the craic’, ‘rip the piss’ and ‘take the mickey’ primarily out of our friends and family, but also the government, the politicians, etc, because humour for its own sake is a valuable thing.

A quote attributed to Voltaire, the great French thinker who claimed the rights of the Enlightenment, said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” When discussing free speech we often forget that when we endeavour to limit another person’s view or opinion we deprive ourselves of a point of view or opinion, along with depriving others of it. What those attackers prevented, along with the time each one of the victims would have had with their family and friends, was yours and my right to see an image or hear an idea. Every bit of humour, every shred of knowledge and discussion, every thought-provoking idea those creative individuals would have produced until they passed away is now lost forever to you and me. Not only have they callously murdered true artists and devastated the lives of many, they’ve taken away your right to see or hear ideas and opinions. Every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner to the same fate.

John Stuart Mill said if all in society were agreed on the virtuosity and beauty of an idea except just one individual it would be most important that that one heretic or dissenter be heard, because we would still benefit from his or her perhaps ridiculous opinion. Rosa Luxembourg said freedom of speech is meaningless unless it ensures the freedom of those who think differently. Those people who violently in Paris had these rights taken from them. Our culture, France’s culture, is considerably less rich than it was on Tuesday.

Karl Marx in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right said that the pre-requisite of all criticism is the criticism of religion. Marx revered the Greek mythical figure of Prometheus, the one who defied the gods and stole from Zeus and gave it to the mortals. He rebelled against the gods and was suitably punished. For Marx, Prometheus was a hero that stood up to the totalitarian nature of the gods and defied them for the benefit of mankind. He identified with this rebellious character. The late Christopher Hitchens said ‘the beginning of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.’ Prometheus gleefully chortled.

The Blasphemy Law

There exists today in Ireland, written into our constitution, a blasphemy law that protects religions from criticism. I think I am right in saying until this day there has been no convictions. However, I was quite alarmed to hear a certain Muslim scholar and academic say he would not hesitate utilising his lawyers under the blasphemy law if he felt his religion was attacked. At the very moment he spoke on Irish radio medical doctors were frantically working to save the lives of those injured in the Paris shootings. The other twelve were executed and died in their offices. At the very moment our freedom of expression and speech were violently attacked by self-described Islamic fanatics, a senior of member of an Islamic cultural centre felt it appropriate to warn us not to make the same mistake or face legal action. And he did so under the protection of the fatuous law. In other words, our government paves the way for the religious in this country to plead a special right to be offended and to seek legal action on that basis.

Two years ago representatives of various religions were invited by the government to give evidence at the Oireachtas abortion debate.

I had opportunity to listen to Doctor Ali Selim on this occasion and have closely scrutinised him ever since.  I for one was quite taken aback at the insinuation at the time that, even if a young girl became pregnant as a result of a rape, that she should continue the pregnancy until it was complete.

“Women who have been victims of rape deserve due sympathy and help. But a child conceived in this unfortunate situation still has the right to live,” Selim stated on the day. “The continuity of this pregnancy of course places a heavy burden on the mother, which may drive her, likewise many other economic and social scenarios, to think of terminating this pregnancy. But killing the foetus is not the right solution. In fact it is a crime against this innocent human being.”

Mr Selim wasn’t the only spiritual representative on the day that insinuated the life of the unborn was to be protected in every single case, regardless of how violently or brutally the manner in which the pregnancy occurred.

On the day it was the Atheist Ireland representative that put forward the most dignified and compassionate advice to the committee.

The group were invited at the last minute, but said at the time: “Ideally, there should be no need to hear any specifically religious or non-religious ethical views, but if they are hearing religious ethical views, they should hear non-religious ethical view

If Mr Selim’s counsel was taken on the issue we would be now living in a country where a teenage girl, raped by an alcoholic stepfather, would be forced by law to continue the pregnancy and give birth.

The issue does not tie in wholly with the idea of free speech, and neither does the plea by Selim in his latest book for increased gender segregation in Irish schools, but it begs the question why would the government seek the advice of the religious on a medical issue such as abortion?

For decades the government has sought the advice and were influenced by the counsel given by the Catholic Church. Our supposedly secular country and government are imbued with religious influence. Religions and their representatives have enjoyed close relationships with our respective governments.

Ireland is a country still coming to terms with the abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, the notorious Magdelene laundries and the misappropriation of funds to the Vatican in various countries around the world. Overseas, religious fanatics driven on by their respective clerics and supposedly holy scriptures carry out atrocities on a daily basis. And yet we have a law written into our constitution that forbids the criticism of these institutions. We allow Synagogues, Churches, Mosques and religious schools to exist here but any criticism of the religions they stand for is forbidden by a fatuous law.

I for one am glad I did not grow up under the shadow of brutal religious oppression but that right was fought for for centuries. And I for one will not allow the children I may one day have grow up in a society that promulgates the idea that religion is not up for criticism. To many of us the metaphysical claims of the various religions are ludicrous, and the practices are often abhorrent. Their histories are bloody and brutal, and the suppressive nature of their values and beliefs are sickly for a great many of us.

The blasphemy law limits people’s ability to speak freely about religion for fear of being prosecuted. And that itself is an abhorrent thing to have in our society; the threat of fear for uttering an idea or offering a criticism.

Thus, I propose the abolition of the law on the grounds that it limits the pre-requisite of all criticism, namely the criticism of religion.

I would urge you, if you feel sufficiently convinced, to vote for the abolition of the law in the coming referendum – if it takes place before the next election.

And going forward I would hope to see a greater number of people calling for the Christian god to be removed from the constitution altogether.

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