Freedom of Speech in the 21st Century

The Morningside Post Editor-in-Chief, Priyanka Johnson, discusses the Charlie Hebdo attacks and freedom of expression in light of the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary.   By Priyanka Johnson   C harlie Hebdo, the French weekly newspa­per, habitually shocked the world. A satiri­cal journal favoring an irreverent style, they were rather rude, unpolished and unrefined bordering on crass. In a world that tries hard to be politi­cally correct, Charlie Hebdo was unapologetically impertinent. The news of the terror attack on its offices gen­erated a very different kind of shock. The reaction was immense; and even after pages of newsprint and gigabytes of online discussions, it is far from being a thing of the past. It has evolved into a piv­otal symbol in the discourse on freedom of expres­sion. The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and incidentally the year I graduate from SIPA. It also marks the end of my term as Editor-in-Chief of The Morningside Post. Through my own struggles with the concepts of the rights and freedoms, I tried to understand the reaction to Charlie Hebdo. An issue I’ve often dealt with on The Morning­side Post is having a reader take offense to a sto­ry. It’s denounced as being badly written, badly researched, factually incorrect or even false. Of course the editors are accused of being incompe­tent and having no sense of judgment. Yet, after wading through the diatribe, in most cases it’s ob­vious that it is really the opinion expressed in the narrative that’s at the center of the quarrel. Everyone deserves a platform to have his or her say. As editors we function as custodians of that platform – charged with maintaining it and keep­ing it in shape for the next slew of opinions. If any­one throws dirt at that platform, we have to clean up the mess. Consequently, I find myself defending opinions or points of view I don’t necessarily agree with. But as long as the premise is logical, the facts are solid, and the way those facts were obtained ad­heres to journalistic standards, it has the right to be out there. I’ve come to realize that criticism actually takes the discourse forward. When expressed ad­equately, it strengthens powerful arguments and destroys weak ones. On the other hand, when cri­tique is reduced to flinging insults and name call­ing, it indicates a level of truth so stark, it evokes a sentimental response. Before working for this publication, my ap­proach to platforms like Charlie Hebdo was to ig­nore them for the most part. There was an unar­guable truth embedded in their obvious mockeries but perhaps their bright colors, tawdry cartoons and questionable language made them easy to dis­miss. But then came the attack, the sheer vicious­ness of which forced society to acknowledge their work. I was fully and truly shocked once more by Charlie Hebdo when I realized the reason for my response. It was because I felt guilty. I was guilty of ignoring the real ideas they presented because they struck at my sensitivities –sensitivities dis­turbed by a glaring truth and a brazen disregard for modesty as presented in those caricatures. It is often the things we hate most about our­selves that we loudly condemn in others. So when I stood with everyone and denounced the terror­ists, I was condemning the part of myself that was dismissive of Charlie Hebdo. When I joined the post attack outrage in asking, “Who do they think they are?” I was really asking myself, “Who did I think I was to be offended by a drawing?” The attack was completely irreverent of human life without a shred of basic human decency; a vul­gar overreaction to a humorous cartoon drawing. It was the irreverence, indecency and vulgarity that shocked me into realizing a truth. Ironically, that’s exactly what Charlie Hebdo tries to do. Priyanka Johnson is a second-year Masters of International Affairs student. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on April 20, 2015. 

You might also like More from author

Comments are closed.