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Stand by the open society

Yesterday we saw a murderous attack in Paris because Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, engaged in their right of self-expression. This is a fundamental human right, derived from the right each of us has to our own thoughts and mind, which is toothless without the ability to express this. This principle is meaningless if it defends and safeguards only various shades of grey. Oliver Wendell Holmes saw the value “freedom for the thought we hate” in 1929 (then in the minority, now an accepted part of US Supreme Court jurisprudence).  The European Court of Human Rights described this in 1976 as “one of the basic conditions for the progress of a democratic society and for the development of every man”. They went on to find that it “is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.

Satire has a long and venerable tradition in Europe, with its heyday in the political cartoons of the eighteenth century. Satire is not something designed or set out to be responsible or respectful.

But a liberal society is not devoid of the notion of personal responsibility. We are each responsible for our own actions and reactions. Outside of the specific and restricted partial legal defence of provocation from a temporary loss of control, we may not claim the behaviour of another to justify our own actions. Those who murdered journalists and the protection did so in full control of their senses, and must be held accountable for these actions.

It also means we hold them responsible, and not their own community and culture. We captured, they should be tried as any murderer would be, to the full rigours and with full due course of law.

And in standing by an open society, we should do more than defend full freedom of speech. We should also affirm the value of a liberal, tolerant society. Yes, we will permit satirists to mock religious beliefs. We will also allow religious communities to organise without discrimination. We should not question without good cause the differences of different customs. We must respect the individual rights of all; this means those who wish to wear a veil should be allowed to do so, whether or not we agree with the custom. One religion or another, or having none like myself, should neither confer advantage nor cause an obstacle.

This is not a time to divide one against the other, separate those living in countries based on the length of time of their various ancestry.

Without seeing any duty on those within particular communities to condemn or not to condemn actions of others no reasonable could endorse, we can also take time to recognise and value those within the Muslim community who are speaking against the barbarism committed in the name of their faith:

If we believe in the liberal values which were highlighted in our culture in the Enlightenment, but which have existed to varying degrees in nearly all cultures, and I certainly do, the attacks yesterday should not be seen as a test of them, but a reason to reaffirm them. We should aim towards an open society, where all are free to speak their mind, whether different cultures can mix, and learn from each other. A society where it is expected that we will not share in our sensibilities, that eschews uniformity and cultural stagnation. A society that strives to treat all truly equally before the law, not just in the court system, but in the administration of the state. This can be a society where each individual can thrive in the way they define for themselves, to make our choices in life. And this resilient observance of individual freedom could well be the only way our society will survive.

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