Freedom of expression – the heart of our shared cultural identity

One of the central tenets of our shared European culture is the freedom of speech and cultural expression.

Our museums, libraries and archives are proud bastions of the expression of this freedom which is at the very heart of a democratic society. Down the centuries they have collected and shared works expounding and epitomising this freedom.  In doing so, continued generations of our European society have been able share in, learn from and continue to represent this proud heritage.

In this age of digitisation we are in the privileged position to share more widely the power of that freedom, making for example the works of, Voltaire, Locke, Burke and John Stuart Mill available online  to all. The principles that Charlie Hebdo is built on are part of this proud tradition, with work digitised, archived and preserved by our libraries. The attack on its expression is felt deeply and with sadness by our community across Europe. We deplore it. Continuing our role as trusted guardians of and ever widening access to the works that represent that freedom, today and for future generations, is our response.

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attackDemonstrators gather at the Place de la République in Paris on the night of the attack. CC-BY-SA JeSuisGodefroyTroude. Source: Wikimedia commons

8 thoughts on “Freedom of expression – the heart of our shared cultural identity

  1. There is no justification for the attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo.
    Sadly, however, there is much in Charlie Hebdo which is not just satirical, but intolerant and gratuitously offensive.
    So we need to ask: Are there limits to freedom of expression? If not, those who carried out the murderous attack could claim that what they did was an exercise of their freedom of expression.
    If we say that they had no right to express their position in a way which injures others, we must also ask whether what Charlie Hebdo (or other persons or publications) injures others. Do we say that an insult to what some people hold sacred is not injurious? Do we say that to attack what Charlie Hebdo holds sacred is not injurious?
    The question is not whether there must be limits on freedom of expression, but where those limits lie. Killing the staff of Charlie Hebdo is clearly beyond those limits.
    There is also a failure in acknowledging cultural diversity. In Western culture we tend to understand words and pictures as extrinsic to what is expressed: they are sound-waves or lines on paper, which do not in themselves affect the object to which they are directed. Semitic cultures does not share that view. Words are not extrinsic realities without consequence; they are actions directly impinging on the subject. Pictures can be even stronger. Insulting words are not trivial; they are a direct personal attack.
    A further dimension is that a weapon like a Kalashnikov, while capable of terrible injury and death, is in one place. Words and pictures, especially in the world of today, can be around the world within minutes, with an almost incredible multiplying effect.
    This is not a simple matter of freedom of expression. However we express what we believe in, we must not lose the other aspect of our tradition which we call respect and courtesy in all things.
    A Latin saying attributed to St Augustine of Hippo in North Africa in the fourth century is this:
    In essentialibus,unitas.
    In dubiis, libertas.
    In omnibus, caritas.
    In essentials, let there be unity.
    In what is doubtful, let there be liberty.
    In all things, let there be charity.

  2. Thank you Eleanor,
    I’m so happy to be a part of these wonderful european world. An I thank you for your words about the freedom of culture and speech. I was so shocked about this attac against Charlie Hebdo – but for me the power of our rights, power and strength was never so obvious then today.
    In a small group we are learning and talking english once a week here at Barbarossa school in Berlin and I’ll copy your text and we will read it in our next lesson next week.
    Thank you
    Sabine

  3. We accept this as natural to us. How about the others who live with us? Just look around – and behind – you.

  4. My great hope is to be able to say what I think of….but in my country and my religion still long way to go for that…?

  5. “In France, the Gayssot Act, voted for on July 13, 1990, makes it illegal to question the existence of crimes that fall in the category of crimes against humanity as defined in the London Charter of 1945, on the basis of which Nazi leaders were convicted by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945-46. When the act was challenged by Robert Faurisson, the Human Rights Committee upheld it as a necessary means to counter possible anti-Semitism.”-Wikipedia
    In Europe, freedom of expression should have the same limitations to provide the same preventive protection of all faiths.

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