Following the January 7, 2015 attacks on the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Pope Francis addressed the media regarding the deadly assault. “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith,” the pontiff said, obviously referring to the history of irreverence Charlie Hebdo was famous for. Comparing past insults delivered by the magazine to directing a vulgarity toward his mother, the pope concluded by stating that those engaging in such behavior “can expect a punch” as a consequence.
Freedom of expression is hard. Not because it’s so difficult to practice — in a functioning democratic society expression should be almost as comfortable to a citizen as breathing. Freedom of expression is hard because it’s frequently very difficult to tolerate.
Even the staunchest libertarians and most ardent liberals will have days when they find themselves staring at the TV, listening to the radio, or scrolling through a social media feed while asking themselves whether anything is sacred. Be it pornography, images of a crucifix drowning in a glass of urine, cartoons mocking your prophet, or attacks on well established scientific theories, democracy’s highest and absolutely essential principle can be awfully hard to endure.
That some cherished view or another has earned the privilege of existing free of criticism is a temptation we all flirt with now and then. But it’s a temptation we must resist. Even facts as basic as heliocentrism and the roundness of our planet cannot be segregated by censors for protection from challenges, however ill informed. Removing such ideas from the mainstream must remain a personal and cultural endeavor based upon well reasoned arguments rather than an official state one.
That nothing beyond freedom of expression itself is ultimately sacred is the source of democracy’s strength. Paradoxically, it is also its greatest vulnerability. Radical official neutrality is something institutions like the Vatican are still adjusting to, as the pope’s comments following the Paris terrorist attacks make clear. Fundamentalists and ideologues far more doctrinaire than Pope Frances reject it outright.
If we’re being honest, none of us is completely at ease with the idea of freedom of expression as a universal right. We all have Pope Francis moments when we think someone’s words or images have crossed a line. We may not…