Freedom without restraint?

January 28, 2015

The following article, written by The Rt Rev Dr Robert Gillies, Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, was published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal on Saturday 17 January 2015.

The last week or so has seen just about all of us engage in issues to do with the freedom of the press and Islamic terrorism in a way none of us would have either imagined or wished.

“The utterly awful murders of the cartoonists and satirists, at the Charlie Hebdo offices, and of the policemen in Paris were cruelly outrageous and must be condemned wholeheartedly.

“And yet there are issues surrounding this that I feel need more considered thought.

“In our west European liberal democracies we value liberty and freedom of expression. These principles thankfully justify freedom of the press without state censorship. So far so good.

“Well perhaps, but I think the situation is a bit more subtle and nuanced than that. Let me explain.

“Satire is a necessary part of a healthy society where organisations and individuals can be challenged because of mistakes or hypocrisy or whatever. But is satire without self-imposed limit a good thing?

“Restraint on the grounds of careful responsibility and respect for others helps create a tolerant and humane society. That’s good, right and proper. So whilst cartoonists and satirical writers can draw and write what they want in a society which allows them to I’m not sure that it is always good to do so without the sort of responsible restraint that I’m suggesting.

“For example, creating images of Mohammed is contrary to all Islamic sentiment. Portraying the Prophet offends the peaceable majority of gentle and moderate Muslims as well as a minority of extremist fanatics.

“To my mind, presenting images of the Prophet as the magazine Charlie Hebdo has recently done, plays into the hands of anyone who feels that west European society is not only recklessly liberal, but that it also bullies with a superior ‘we can do as we want’ attitude.

“That isn’t good. We need to create a society that is careful and respectful, responsible and tolerant. Not insulting or being hurtfully spiteful towards another’s cherished beliefs, no matter where we might live. It’s surely wrong to offend, needlessly, the decent-living millions of Muslims who in our shrunken globe we now live alongside as neighbours.

“I suppose it is too much to ask satirical cartoonists and satirical journalists to exercise responsible restraint and to rein back their pens when they might do damage. It’s not in their nature.

“But I do fear that, unless they do so, unbridled satire risks undermining from within the sort of easy, tolerant and humane society that gives them the freedom to work in the way they do.

“Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking for any special pleading for religious organisations to be exempt from satirical attack. Legitimate challenge to organisations such as the Church, or Islamic or Jewish individuals and organisations is perfectly proper.

“Gratuitous satirical offence of others’ perfectly reasonable sacred beliefs, however, lacks responsible respect and restraint. It does so precisely in those areas where such virtues are most needed in order to help create the peaceful and tolerant society we all need for healthy well-being and secure living.”

The Rt Rev Dr Robert Gillies
Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney