Choice and obligation? Language as a tool, a balme, or as a weapon?

"Love". Detail from Jeff Thomson, 'Words', 2010. Birkenhead Public Library, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Pixlr Express.

“Love”. Detail from Jeff Thomson, ‘Words’, 2010. Birkenhead Public Library, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Pixlr Express.

An attack upon our ability to tell stories is not just censorship – it is a crime against our nature as human beings.

Salman Rushdie

There is a fine line between censorship and good taste and moral responsibility.

— Steven Spielberg

Whatever position one takes on the subject of free speech, I believe we must both mourn and speak out against the deaths last week of seventeen people in Paris. Men and women who were murdered because of their work, their beliefs — or because fate placed them in the wrong place at the wrong time. We must also remember those who were injured in the attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo, the kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes, and at Fontenay-aux-Roses and Montrouge.

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“Love”. Detail from Jeff Thomson, ‘Words’, 2010. Birkenhead Public Library, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015. Shot with iPhone4, edited with Pixlr Express and Pho.to Pro.

My own view of freedom of expression is reflected in the quotes above by both Salman Rushdie and Steven Spielberg.

I believe that all rights carry obligations. Freedom of expression is not absolute; it is not carte blanche to deliberately offend, incite, mislead or cause hurt. It is a right long fought-for and hard-won by generations of people who came before us. As such, it must be protected against those who would steal it in fear or ignorance. It must also be used responsibly.

Outside the Birkenhead public library, on Auckland’s North Shore, are two sculptures by Jeff Thomson. Called ‘Words’ both are made of sheet steel with words cut into it. Mainly they are words that have special local significance, but some are universal — like “love.”

The symbolism of a sculpture constructed from text seems quite apt to me. In one sense, the words don’t matter. It wouldn’t affect the overall shape or strength of the work if instead of “love” the artist had cut “hate” — or for that matter “rice”, “snap” or “hats.” But it does matter; words matter; language matters. That is why our forbears fought so hard for the right of free expression, and which we must cherish.

Those of us who enjoy any freedom of expression make choices every time we speak, write, draw, photograph, sculpt. We can use our chosen forms of communication as a weapon, as a balme, or perhaps as a bridge between ourselves and others not like us.

Whatever choices we make; we must do so consciously.

This post was written as part of Sally’s Phoneography and non-SLR Digital Devices Photo Challenge at Lens and Pens by Sally. You can find out more here.

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12 thoughts on “Choice and obligation? Language as a tool, a balme, or as a weapon?

  1. Great post …. Are those that push the envelope with speech intended to offend just as responsible for the attacks on free speech they invite? Of course, nothing justifies a murderous rampage as the right to live trumps all other rights, but I am trying to decipher what you mean by, “it is not carte blanche to deliberately offend, incite, mislead or cause hurt.”

    In light of that, how do you feel about the satirical treatment of Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo? Is that responsible practice of free speech or was it deliberately intended to offend? There are those that would say that no one has the ‘right’ to be offended (even if they are) and therefore ALL speech is protected, even the offensive and irresponsible.

    I find it ironic that the media was, at first, so willing to accept blaming an unknown youtube video for murderous attacks committed by radical Islam, but now turn their cross hairs on the Radical Islam when they themselves became the target of terror.

    Like

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions. I am (like many I suspect) trying to figure out exactly where I stand on free speech. I completely agree that the right to life trumps all others and I’m profoundly disturbed by individuals – and worse – political or social movements that endorse killing as a “solution” to feeling offended.

      I’m also uncomfortable with the notion that anyone can say anything they like and claim they are simply exercising a right. Charlie Hebdo may be part of a long tradition of intellectual satire, and its creators professionals with a code of ethics who are “pushing the envelope”, but would we feel the same way about anti-Semitic or white supremacist publications? Is cyber-bullying just free speech on steroids?

      I think what we are seeing is an enormous clash of cultural and intellectual traditions played-out in an increasingly heterogeneous world. Population migration and electronic communications mean that messages which formerly might have had a local, relatively homogeneous audience are now available to (and sometimes thrust in the faces of) people who do not share the broad cultural values which give rise to those messages.

      How do we resolve this? I wish I knew. I’d love to be able to have some sort of formula that I could apply to say what constitutes freedom of expression, and what constitutes offense. Sadly, I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Su, very important words. Charlie Hebdo certainly has the right to publish what they like, even though much of what they do seems to be designed to offend even while poking fun. But any response that injures or kills is wrong, no matter what is published!

    janet

    Liked by 1 person

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