Editorial:  Freedom to Offend

Editorial: Freedom to Offend

A journalist goes to work in the morning and is the first to arrive at the office. She turns on the lights and fires up her computer. The familiar hum of fluorescents, electronics, and the heater is an odd comfort at the early hour, as is the thermos of coffee which warms her. Familiarity, warmth…independence. Alone, she doesn’t feel lonely. Just ready for the work at hand. She will be writing today. That is a gift and one she is happy to share with her readers.

And, like a lot of writers, she might take it for granted, just a little. Writer’s block, which all writers experience at some point or perhaps all the time, is a manifestation of taking the ability to express oneself via the written word for granted. The words will come eventually; might as well surf the internet one more time before they do. Maybe the internet-surfing will feed the writing, but probably it won’t. Get to it. Write a few words. If you build it, they will come.

Today she is writing an editorial, which means that instead of the usual news-reporting, unbiased stance she must take, she will be able to express in this 500 or so words an opinion. In fact it may not be her own opinion. She may be a die-hard liberal with concrete, passionate viewpoints on everything from gay marriage to Michelle Obama’s biceps. But if the paper she works for swings the other way, she’ll find ways to understand the opposite view. And, even though it’s an op-ed, she’ll still have to temper it, mindful of the varying sensitivities of her paper’s readers, her boss, their advertisers, and even her family. Everything she writes is a choice and therefore a risk.

But the risk of offending someone — say, for example, the hardworking people at Build it Back when she writes that the program has problems; or her friends, angered by the chokehold on Garner, when she writes that police need support to accomplish their work – is just part of daily life. It comes with the territory. She has worn this hat for a while, and she knows how to be diplomatic, how to write in different voices. Sometimes the risk is scary, as it should be. Today, though, it is only trivial. Like the gift of writing, it is a great and wonderful gift to have the right to express an opinion that will piss people off.

In Paris, the journalists at Charlie Hebdo came to work that day – and this may only be projection – probably taking that gift for granted. And who could blame them if they had? A satirical magazine, whose very art is the art of risking offense, doesn’t have to walk on eggshells like they would at Le Figaro or even The Forum. It’s their whole gig – you read the publication knowing that it will be over-the-top. They’d been attacked before, and like America’s The Onion, surely were all-too-familiar with angry reactions to their work. These people live by and, quite simply, define by example the credo “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Face it: the attack on Charlie challenges our complacency on the issue of freedom of speech. If terrorists feel threatened by and kill cartoonists poking fun, and farcical movies can’t make it into movie theaters, where does it end? It seems a rather long time ago that Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after the Ayatollah called publicly for his death – but the fact of the matter is that extremists have been responding to art they are threatened by with similar acts of cowardice all along. Yes, you’ve read it right: cowardice, which masked in aggression and violence is still cowardice. The doctor delivering the bad news to the terminally-ill patient is killed by the patient as he says those painful words: you’re dying. Just a thought: before firing the gun, the patient might have sought a second opinion.


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