In the weeks since the Charlie Hebdo attack, many of us have been pondering the meaning of freedom of expression. “Je suis Charlie” has come to define much more than solidarity with those gunned down inside the magazine’s office. For some, it has turned into a rallying cry for the notion that all of us must be allowed to say what we want, no matter who or what might be offended. Others, including Pope Francis and any number of media outlets who opted not to reprint Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons after the attack, have argued just the opposite – that the lesson here is we must be careful what we say, even if we have the right to say it.
Free speech represents the true essence of democracy, but it is undeniably discomforting at the same time. It’s easy enough to extol the virtues of unfettered expression when we aren’t the ones being offended. But when the very ethos that underpinned the work of Charlie Hebdo is invoked in a way that makes us uncomfortable or angry or even scared we may be tempted to respond differently. In those moments, we face an existential predicament: do we affirm free speech or shut it down? If there’s a middle ground, it’s hard to see it.It's hard to see a middle ground because there isn't one. Either you believe in free speech--even the sort you find "discomforting," even the sort that targets and offends you, (even the sort uttered by a Halifax hot dog flogger)--or you don't. Looking for a mythical "middle ground" is a waste of time and a pointless endeavor. In its own way, it's not unlike the futile search for that chimerical "two state solution."