Tolerance and freedom of speech

My husband and I have a subscription to Free Inquiry. Unfortunately, I’m behind in my reading because apparently I’d rather waste time on Facebook than read. But my job is giving me the chance to catch up (in between answering the phone), so yesterday I grabbed the closest issue I could find, which just happened to be the April/May 2015 issue.

And I was reminded of Charlie Hebdo.

My first reactions weren’t kind, I must confess. Actually, my very first reaction back in January was shock and horror. Three of my many college years were as a journalism major, and a part of me identified with those who’d lost their lives that day.

But after that wore off, my reaction was this: I thought, and said, “They should have known.” They should have known it would be dangerous to do what they did.


Let me clarify my position a little bit. I firmly believe in freedom of speech. Firmly. Journalism major and all that. (The reason I left that major had nothing to do with the strength of my beliefs on freedom of speech; it was the practical side of realizing that, as a newspaper journalist, I’d have to work the cops beat, which meant I’d never see my husband. That was unacceptable to me.)

But I believe just as strongly in tolerance. I have a “Tolerance” bumper sticker on my car. (Okay, I have a lot of bumper stickers on my car.)  What the Charlie Hebdo staff did was not what a tolerant person would do.

In my ideal world, we’d have both tolerance and freedom of speech. Everyone would say what they want, and everyone would respect everyone else’s right to say whatever they wanted, no one would die, and we’d all live happily ever after.

(Yes, I live in my own little world sometimes.)

But if I have to choose between the two? That’s when I get uncomfortable.

The issue of Free Inquiry included a review of a book called The Tyranny of Silence. I downloaded a sample to my Kindle over lunch. I can’t afford to buy the whole book yet, but my sample does go far enough to let me hit this gem:

…tolerance and freedom of speech reinforce each other. Free speech makes sense only in a society that exercises great tolerance of those with whom it disagrees. Historically, tolerance and freedom of speech are each other’s prerequisites rather than opposites. In a liberal democracy, the two must be tightly intertwined.

This makes me feel a little better.

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo had the right to freedom of speech. The Kouachi brothers did not have the right to kill them for it.

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