Free speech comes with responsibilities

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: It's possible to back free speech but object to Charlie Hebdo cartoons
  • Kohn warns not to dismiss all of Islam as extreme

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In the aftermath of the heinous attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in France, many are tweeting and writing in solidarity: Je suis Charlie. But I'm not. Because I am not Charlie.

Of course, I unequivocally support the right to free speech. Period. And I also believe in choosing to exercise that right responsibly and respectfully. That's why I would not have published cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed, insulting 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide in the process (and no, I wouldn't have published many of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons insulting Judaism and Christianity, either).
In no way should this be taken -- as it has been by some on Twitter -- to suggest that I somehow condone the killings of Charlie Hebdo's staff. That's a ridiculously insulting idea and just plain wrong. It's possible to honor and protect the free speech rights of publications like Charlie Hebdo while simultaneously believing such cartoons are unnecessarily disrespectful and offensive.
    As others have pointed out, in the wake of the Paris attacks we've conflated support for free speech with support for the actual speech in question. But while I unquestionably support the free speech rights of the KKK and "god hates fags" protesters, for example, that clearly doesn't mean I would support, never mind join in, their hateful messages. Some on the right insist that media should have to re-print Charlie Hebdo's anti-Islam cartoons or else they're cowardly. However, this is a fundamental perversion of free speech, to say the least. There is no inconsistency between supporting free speech for Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists and finding the content of some of their cartoons offensive and disrespectful.
    I don't profess to be a scholar of Islam. But it's plain that some branches or interpretations of the faith view any depictions of the Prophet Mohammed as blasphemy. That doesn't mean that all Muslims who see such depictions as blasphemy think the appropriate response is violence; far from it. But a radical few do, and, as Middle East commentator Juan Cole has argued, they exploit such defamations against the prophet to try to radicalize others in the faith.
    Sally Kohn
    Unfortunately, there are some in the West who think all of Islam is tainted, and who -- despite there being plenty of violence and intolerance in the texts and histories of Judaism and Christianity -- believe Islam is somehow uniquely violent and intolerant. But when we mistakenly believe that a narrow and violent interpretation of Islam is the only true version, we play right into the hands of the radical zealots who want the world, including all Muslims, to believe precisely that.
    The reality is that the Muslim world isn't just the leadership of Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also Indonesia and Mali. And it's worth pointing out that several Muslim countries have elected or appointed female heads of state, something the United States has yet to manage. And also that while much remains to be done on advancing gay rights, gay bars do still exist in Lebanon and in Jordan. Unfortunately, about 60 percent of Americans don't know a single Muslim, and so may only know about Islam what the media reports about terrorists.
    It is important to remember that there are a wide variety of interpretations and practices of Islam worldwide, including an active debate on those interpretations among scholars and spiritual leaders.
    Sadly, I have to wonder if Charlie Hebdo had been attacked for cartoons insulting Christians, whether there would be a similar outpouring in support of the magazine, especially in the United States. After all, many of the same people outraged just a month ago about the alleged "War on Christmas" have no qualms about launching a "War on Islam" because, well, it's not their religion being mischaracterized and insulted. It unsettles me to think that the reason so much of the outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo is driven not just by the violence suffered or a defense of free speech, but by the opportunity to implicitly support jabs at Islam. But judging by some of the coverage, it seems a fair assumption to make.
    Indeed, on the same day of the attack in Paris, a bomb was placed outside the offices of an NAACP chapter in Colorado. Thankfully, no one died in that attack, but it was still a bomb on U.S. soil and yet the story was absent from much of the mainstream media. Had Muslims been the suspects, I think it's fair to say there would have been much more attention paid.
    As someone with a public voice, my free speech benefits from an extra megaphone, and while the principle of free speech means I can say what I want whenever I want it, in practice I try to think carefully about the impact of my words -- and how they might be felt among others whether or not they share my belief system.
    Personally, I believe in not saying something just because I want to speak, but because I want to be heard. So, for instance, I don't casually condemn or denigrate people's religions because I want people of faith to hear me. All religions face the struggle of progressing from rigid tradition to evolving modernity, and so I want my voice to be clear and constructive in supporting that progress.
    Put another way, when I open my mouth, I don't want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution. I want to help Islam and Christianity and Judaism and society in general become more open and inclusive and democratic and liberated. Free speech is fundamentally essential to that project. So is respect. In the aftermath of the heinous attacks in Paris, it's important we remember that free speech and respect can go hand-in-hand.