I am a writer. It sounds simple (and I’m sure you knew that about me anyway), but a lot falls out from that. One of the important things about writers is that by and large, they value freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means that I have the right to think out, write down and publish the stories I’ve already created in my mind. Without being free to write what we wish, we writers can’t exercise our creativity.
There’s no requirement for anyone to like what I write (although of course, I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a lucrative publishing contract). You’re not obligated to read any of my work. If you do read it, there’s no law saying you must think it’s any good at all. That’s your right. No-one is compelled to read any of my blog posts, let alone agree with the points I make. That’s your right too. That’s the other half of freedom of expression. You are free to publicly disagree with me, ignore everything I write, and/or publish really negative reviews of my fiction.
You probably knew this too, but I also do academic writing. In that capacity, freedom of expression means that I may choose (within the limits of ethical treatment of humans and animals) any research topic of interest to me, formulate a research question, conduct a study and write a paper based on it. Academic freedom means that an academician’s choice of research topic is not limited by a government, a university or an institution. There are certainly codes of conduct that must be followed to ensure the safety and privacy of people who participate in studies, but beyond that, academicians are free to come to whatever conclusions their research suggests.
Academic freedom also means that other researchers are equally free to disagree with conclusions, refute findings, propose alternative explanations, or completely ignore a given paper. That’s a researcher’s right, too.
Those two sides of freedom of expression are the foundation of the debates that have moved us forward as humans. That’s how we’ve developed cures, launched successful businesses, forged governments and created and harnessed new technologies. It’s also how we’ve found ways to express ourselves creatively and look at the human condition through art, music, writing, drama and film. Ideas are presented, other ideas arise from that, and through the debate and learning that follow, we get to a better understanding of ourselves and our world.
Sometimes, freedom of expression means that we dislike – even find offensive – a given book, political idea, blog post, or film. When that happens (I’ve certainly felt that way, anyway), we can exercise our own freedom. We can stop reading a given book or write a very negative review. We can refuse to read the work of a given author. We can block blog comments written by those who make personally insulting remarks or use slurs we don’t like. We can choose not to vote for a politician whose ideas we disagree with, or launch or participate in a protest against a law. Don’t like adult films? You can walk right by such cinemas or choose not to go to such websites. Dislike a certain actor or director? You’re free to avoid that person’s films. Have strong religious beliefs? You’re free in many societies to eat or not eat certain foods, avoid alcohol and/or caffeine, worship as you choose (or not worship at all) and so on.
As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I prize freedom of expression. I depend on it. That means that I sometimes stop reading a book, or avoid a given film, or disagree with a blog post I’ve read. It also means that I sometimes find myself having to listen and respond respectfully as a colleague or student says something with which I strongly disagree. Those things can be difficult. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being free to express, share and debate ideas is too important to me.
And that’s one reason I am so appalled by the murders at the offices of Paris’ newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The deaths alone are of course awful in themselves. My thoughts and wishes for healing go out to the friends and families of those who died. Please know that millions of people everywhere stand by you at this time. But just as disturbing is what this attack says about freedom of expression.
I’m deliberately not commenting on my personal opinion of Charlie Hebdo’s choice of cartoons. To me, that’s not the point. The point, in my opinion, is that the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo is free to choose what to print or not to print. Yes, newspapers that report on actual events are not free to make up details. Those must be accurate and factual. But in the case of cartoons and editorials, newspapers are free to use satire and other devices to make points. If readers find them offensive, they are free in their turn to write letters, refuse to buy and read copies of a given newspaper, and encourage their friends and relatives to do the same.
Violence – terrorism – is not only horrible and repugnant, it is also not the way to deal with those whose views we may not share. Charlie Hebdo is not going to go away as a result of these murders. And I, for one, support the newspaper’s resolve. As a writer, I value my freedom to write what I wish – and yours to choose to read it or not – far too much to do anything else.
Je suis Charlie.