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What does freedom of speech mean to you?

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, people worldwide have expressed solidarity with the French satirical magazine and the nuances of free speech have made a swift entrance into mainstream conversation.

 One of the overarching sentiments among supporters has been that freedom of speech includes the right to express opinions, no matter how unpopular. The racism expressed in the magazine’s illustrations isn’t new though, nor is it unpopular; to label it as such is to deem it the underdog, a position for which such widespread ideologies are inherently unfit.

 Many have condemned the senseless attacks and mourned the innocent lives lost. This is completely warranted - no one deserves to die over cartoons and the fact that these lives were taken is nothing short of tragic. To hide behind free speech as an excuse to publish offensive content, however, is a cowardly action.

 Several media outlets have chosen to republish these illustrations, including the University of Manitoba’s student newspaper, The Manitoban. However, many Muslims are against the creation of any visuals of Muhammad, viewing them as blasphemous. As writer and co-host of the podcast Two Brown Girls Fariha Roisin explained on Twitter, no drawings of the Prophet exist for a reason.

 In Islamic art, Muhammad was always depicted with a white veil over his head. As such, it is incredibly disrespectful for Western publications to depict him, especially in the way publications like Charlie Hebdo have. For the author of The Manitoban article however, republishing the cartoon was necessary to contextualize the issue.

 A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if you can’t find words to sufficiently describe a cartoon, you may be in the wrong profession.

 Freedom of speech allows publications to make their own decisions regarding this issue. But what purpose does republishing these cartoons serve? While many have dismissed the magazine’s implicit racism under the pretence of equal opportunity offending, this ignores the importance of context; publishing cartoons attacking an already marginalized group under the guise of satire is not subversive, nor is it equal to satire at the expense of the powerful. What is the point of dialogue that only serves to reinforce the status quo?

 This discussion is not limited to one publication, as it represents a certain collective prejudice. In 2010, France passed a law that banned wearing religious headscarves in public. Recently, France became the first country to ban pro-Palestine demonstrations.

 Within the last few weeks, #JeSuisCharlie has become a rallying cry of freedom of expression in France and around the globe - but where was this outrage when freedom was violated before this?

 At first glance, this new wave of activism seems to support unequivocal free speech. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that there is more to it than the ostensible protection of rights. The question is not whether all speech is free, or whether it should be, instead, the question has become one of identity.

 If you advocate for the right to publish racist cartoons, but not for the right to protest, is it really freedom of speech that you stand for? Is it really brave to defend the right to supposed satire, but not the right to wear religious garments? What freedom, exactly, do you advocate for - and whose speech?

Caitlyn Gowriluk is a first-year Rhetoric major at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 69, Number 18 of The Uniter (January 28, 2015)

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