On his way to the Philippines this week, the Pope was asked to pronounce on the question that has been on everyone's minds: What limits should we draw around freedom of expression? The Pope answered, quite sweetly, that he would punch in the nose anyone who swore at his late mother. Then, more troublingly, he said, "One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people's faith, one cannot make fun of faith. … There is a limit."
In fact, one can make fun of faith. In some cases, one should. And in all cases, one should be permitted to, under the law, without fear of flogging or bullets. The worst one should expect is (in the most heinous phrase of our new millennium) "giving offence."
I personally have given offence to Catholics in these pages – once for wondering whether Pope Benedict was using his new iPad to search for Prada shoe sales and for referring to my great-aunt Sister Mildred in her long black habit as a "Dalek bride of Christ," and once for wondering why the allegedly progressive Pope Francis was doing so little to examine the Church's horrendous sex scandals.
Did I know in advance I was "giving offence"? Not really. I thought I was being cheeky. Similarly, I have been accused of being offensive by the fans of Murdoch Mysteries, by animal-rights activists and by monarchists. Here's the thing: You cannot know in advance whom you will offend with your opinions. And for every person you do offend, another will be enlightened or amused or moved to question or simply so bored he turns the page.
I wish the fear of committing an imagined offence against a potential but hypothetical group of people had not kept most of Canada's English-language newspapers and broadcasters from showing the cartoons that led to the slaughter of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I wish The Globe and Mail had published the contentious cartoons, so our readers could see for themselves, in context, what could possibly inspire such blood and savagery as a response. Here, I echo Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno, who holds a similar view about her paper not publishing the cartoons: "We do not wish to offend. That's the thing. The deeply wrong thing."
The New York Times, along with the majority of North American newspapers, did not print the most inflammatory cartoons. The paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, described a difficult decision made by executive editor Dean Baquet: "Ultimately he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers."
But isn't that defence not only self-serving, but insulting as well? Infantilizing, even. It assumes that all Muslim readers will react to the cartoons in the same way, as if they are incapable of filtering their opinions through any lens other than religion. A set of beliefs is just that; it is not a hive mind. The religious scholar Reza Aslan was all over television this week, repeating the idea that there is no one "Muslim world" – there are hundreds of millions of individuals who share some of the same beliefs. But not, by any means, all.
Self-censorship is a form of slow suicide for those of us in the news business, and a news outlet that tries to avoid giving offence will soon be printing one page a week. Every day, we pick our way through a minefield of the miffed. Slate magazine, quite rightly, dubbed 2014 "The Year Of Outrage." It's as if people believe there is a lost commandment that reads, "Thou Shalt Walk Through Life With Thy Feathers Unruffled." But there isn't. Something will always ruffle your feathers. We feel offended by transgressions against the belief systems that bind us, mainly sexual and identity politics. Why should religion – merely another belief system – be free from those slings and arrows?
Personally, as an atheist, I'm irritated by a lot of what goes on in the world, but I deal with it like a rational person, by muttering to myself on the bus. The opinion piece by radical cleric Anjem Choudary supporting the Charlie Hebdo killers was revolting, but I'm glad USA Today ran it – it doesn't help to pretend these ideas aren't out there, and I'd rather see them in the light of day. Similarly, while I think the French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala has proved himself a vile anti-Semite, and his public declaration of fellow-feeling for the kosher supermarket killer was stupid and insensitive, I don't think he (or anyone else) should be arrested for a Facebook post.
Yet there will be more. In the days after the attacks, France made 54 terror-related arrests, and 37 of them involved something called "condoning terrorism." What does that mean? After the mass rally in Paris, 12 interior ministers of European countries issued a joint statement, which contained buried in it an ominous declaration of a crackdown on speech that incited extremism.
Again, what kind of speech is that? Who gets to decide what the limits of expression are? At the moment, it's the state, with its formal power, and religion, with its historical legacy of compelling obedience. You could consider that offensive.