Human dignity and self-righteousness: Charlie Hebdo one month later

It’s been about a month since the Charlie Hebdo attack,[1] and partisans on each side of the free speech debate have largely maintained their positions.

On one side, some vehemently insist on an absolute right to free speech. The attackers were, in their view, seeking to censor that speech and when journalists are afraid to tell the truth, they might not.

On the other side, some continue to be offended by any depiction whatsoever of Mohammad. Depictions, especially satirical depictions, are an attack upon their religion.

At first glance, this appears to be a conflict between, on one hand, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and on the other hand, freedom of religion, where the latter is construed to include a freedom from being offended. But that’s a gross oversimplification.

Whenever we hear the word freedom, we need to ask some questions: 1) Freedom for whom? 2) Freedom at whose expense?[2] And with any discourse on human rights, we need to recall that the underlying object is human dignity.[3]

So who is getting freedom of speech? In fact, because mass surveillance can only meaningfully target dissent, and because mass surveillance is pervasive in all but a few countries, pretty much the only people who have freedom of speech these days are elites, whose interests are aligned with the status quo.

As it happens, that winds up largely aligning with the answer to the question of who is getting freedom of the press. Sure, I can publish this blog, but do I get an audience? My server logs inform me pretty consistently that almost all of my audience consists of search engine bots. And of course, I would need access to very expensive equipment and facilities were I to try to actually publish something in hard copy.

Such equipment and facilities are, of course, under the control of the wealthy, whose interests are aligned with the status quo. To gain an audience, whether for this blog or a hard copy publication, I would need marketing and public relations skills. As it happens, I have no talent for either, even with a B.A. in Mass Communication. So I would need to hire somebody to do this. If I had the money to do this, my interests would, again, be at least somewhat more aligned with the status quo than they are.

One might notice a couple of things here. First, freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to be heard. It is the freedom to be heard that actually counts, and, not being a right, this is largely the province of people who are at least comfortable with the status quo.

But what that means is that freedom of speech does not affirm the human dignity of those who are not heard. And we have to ask ourselves, is it the human dignity of the well-off that we are concerned with? And even more to the point, is it only the human dignity of the well-off with which we are concerned?

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, therefore, come at a cost to the human dignity of those who lack the freedom to be heard. And those who possess that freedom bear a responsibility to those who do not.[4] This, ultimately, is the problem with Charlie Hebdo’s treatment of Islam that Michael Lerner pointed to so astutely.[5]

We should also note, however, that similar problems arise with religion. Yes, as Lerner observed, Islam is a principal means for some subaltern people in Paris to find meaning and community. When we disrespect that, we are attacking the only connection that some humans have to a purpose.[6] We are attacking their dignity.

But a lot of the backlash against desert religions generally, that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, stem from the impositions that authorities within these religions would make even on those who disagree. Islam catches a lot of flak for Shariah law just as Christianity catches flak for some denominations’ attitudes on anything even remotely related to sex.

It seems that freedom of religion, too, comes at a cost to human dignity, particularly and most generally, of women. That, in the minds of many free speech advocates, rationalizes Charlie Hebdo’s satire.

But what free speech absolutism actually does is answer the religious stripping of dignity with a secular stripping of dignity. Only the self-righteous find their dignity affirmed in such a move. Which, by the way, resembles the affirmation of self-righteousness in attacks such as that on Charlie Hebdo.

  1. [1]Dan Bilefsky and Maïa de la Baume, “Terrorists Strike Charlie Hebdo Newspaper in Paris, Leaving 12 Dead,” New York Times, January 7, 2015,
  2. [2]George Lakoff, Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
  3. [3]George Kent, Ending Hunger Worldwide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011); Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).
  4. [4]I extend the problem of speaking for others to the problem of speaking of others, but my thinking is based on Linda Martín Alcott, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, eds. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1995). Update, February 8, 2015: It turns out that President Barack Obama made a similar point in his address to the National Prayer Breakfast: Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast,” White House, February 5, 2015,
  5. [5]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015,
  6. [6]Michael Lerner, “Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2015,