Walking the moral tightrope

I stand alongside anyone arguing for freedom of speech. But sometimes also against them. And alongside the other side too, sometimes. Such is walking the moral tightrope

Tightropes are by definition dangerous things; the challenge and appeal is that you could fall off either side and requires incredible balance. Grant Robertson has discovered the danger of not just the act, but the metaphor as well when he tweeted about the Charlie Hedbo killings.

Across two tweets Robertson wrote:

"My heartfelt thoughts with the families/friends of staff of Charlie Hebdo + people of France in the face of such tragedy. Supporting freedom of expression, secular + religious, can mean walking a moral tightrope. Extremism in action + response is never the answer."

That was pounced on by two Punditeers. On Twitter Phil Quin responded by asking Robertson to explain the tightrope metaphor and argued:

"how is defending religious expression along with the right to blasphemy a moral tightrope and not a moral boulevard?"

Then Josie Pagani wrote here on Pundit saying Robertson had not explained what made him morally uncomfortable, writing:

"No one doubted Grant would be against killing. It doesn’t take much courage to oppose mass slaughter. What takes courage, and is vitally important, is to stand up for the right to offend people. Full stop.

There is no moral tightrope here. As Phil Quin said, it is a moral boulevard leading to undiluted outrage at slaughter, unqualified support for the right of satirists everywhere to lampoon the pious, powerful and stupid.

It’s easy to fight for views you agree with. Freedom to express views without fear of violence or death is about freedom to express views you don’t agree with."

Now, far be it from me to intercede in a lovely Labour debate, but while Phil and Josie obviously disagree with Robertson, I would – on different levels – agree with all of them.

When talking about freedom of expression in the context of satirists being murdered for their work, most people in this country will agree on a few things.

First and foremost, that no-one should die for their work or their points of view.

Second, that satire and the right to mock and lampoon is an important part of a free society.

Third, that violence – especially the taking of lives – is no way to respond to a contest of ideas and only begets more violence and more hatred.

Yet, I tend to side more with Robertson than Josie and Phil on this for the simple reason that I agree a moral tightrope does exist. It would be fabulous we could settle on some absolutes and simply declare as Josie does "there is no moral tightrope here". But of course there is.

While I understand Josie's desire to stand strongly alongside the victims and against such a horrific act, given the devils and angels tangled up in any human action, I'm not sure if there's ever a case where you can declare there is no moral tightrope. Or at least, that there is not a need to balance an absolute with at least a whisker of another view point. There is always a line or a limit.

Look at those three moral points I laid out just a few paragraphs ago. While I said then most people would agree on them, it's fair to say that a) millions around the world would not and b) even those who would (and would die for another's right to express something they disagree with) could find a scenario in which they would switch sides.

Hitler is the easy strawman in such arguments, but you can insert any tyrant into the lines to come. While I wrote "no-one should die for their points of view", if your point of is that millions should die (as per Hitler), is there not a case for your murder? And therefore, is there not a case for responding to a contest of ideas with violence?

Even pacifist and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler, choosing to reject his core moral beliefs in this particular instance.

As for the second point, won't even the most liberal mind draw a line of taste somewhere along the spectrum of satire? Some, seemingly Josie and Phil among them (though I stand to be corrected), argue satire should be absolutely free. Perhaps even that freedom of speech is absolute. But I disagree, and by disagreeing with them must agree that there is a balancing act – and therefore a moral tightrope – to be considered.

No right comes without some responsibility; every right has a limit. Satire is not a magic word which means you are exempt from that.

Yes, satirists have the right to challenge and even offend.

Yet we have laws to limit it from inciting violence or defaming, for example. We ban certain images. And even inside the law there are examples that would be questionable at the very least. What about a KKK cartoonist who drew racist cartoons about African-Americans, for example?

Would millions then say "Je Suis KKK"? Is that the extreme we need to go to to defend free speech? Or would you draw a line somewhere before that?

Because to many Muslims, the "Je Suis Charlie" line could be seen in the same light as we might see "Je Suis KKK". Whether you agree with that or not, is it not reasonable to want to stand alongside offended and oppressed Muslims whose despair makes them want to resort to violence as well as the slaughtered journalists? Should we not avoid making this into an "us" and "them" debate, a trap that even the usually spot-on Jon Stewart fell into this week? (I should add, most of his words in this case were also spot-on, just not all).

As some in the thread responding to Josie's post have argued, satire is best used as a weapon against the powerful on behalf of the weak. Some have argued Muslims in France are, typically, poor and disenfranchised, while the cartoonists at Charlie Hedbo much closer to the power of the establishment. That raises a whole other argument about power. For example, are you still weak and powerless when you pick up a machine-gun? Haven't modern jihadis shown that with the right backing you can be poor and disenfranchised and incredibly powerful at the same time?

And at the most basic level, there are the competing rights of 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom to live without fear and prejudice'. Of course there's a moral tightrope in that debate as we seek to balance the two; it's central to the human condition.

That is not to say the Charlie Hedbo team deserved to die. Or that a KKK cartoonist would deserve to die. Or that we shouldn't swiftly respond to this atrocity by naming it as such and strongly reaffirming our commitment to free speech, even speech that we disagree with... and I don't imagine more than a handful of people in New Zealand would argue otherwise. Yet let's not pretend the discussion ends there or that the debate occurs in a black and white world of goodies and baddies.

There are lines to be drawn and tightropes to walk, as always.

Yet it's been interesting to see how quickly those daring to put another point of view in Josie's thread (which is supposed to be the very freedom being championed in this debate) have been accused of coming close to justifying the murder.

I don't think those arguing the cartoons were racist and therefore provocative are explaining away murder, just as I don't think those warning that they are at risk of doing that are hypocrites who argue for free speech then try to label those who take another view as terrorist sympathisers.

What it does show is that this is a complex and nuanced argument where various things can be partly true at the same time.

And that's why, while I agree with Josie's sentiment and much of her argument, I reject her line that "there is no moral tightrope here". With human morals, there is always a tightrope, always a balance, always another point of view.