Our Rights

It will be difficult to match the impressive showing of support for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, along with the repulsion and repudiation of violence committed under the guise of avenging the character of another, that so many thoughtful and passionate people have already written. At best, I will add my voice to the many and feel better about myself for doing so. The murderers of the French cartoonists have been dispatched; to Paradise if their faith was well placed, or annihilation if they were as deluded as I believe they were. The families, friends and loved ones of their victims are left to mourn and grieve and deal with the horror.

I will not attempt to interpret, speculate or theorize as to the motivation behind the actions of these men as so many already have. Occam’s Razor applies well here I think, and I’ll take them at their word: They were avenging someone of great importance to them who had been ridiculed and insulted, often in vulgar and profane ways. Some part of the human mind reacts to horrific acts of retribution like this by cowering in fear and finding fault with the provocateurs. “Why did they have to be so insulting? Didn’t they know something like this could happen? Maybe we shouldn’t say things like that, you know, to keep the peace.” I understand this sentiment, I do, because I feel it too.

The defense of freedom of speech and freedom of expression move me, and I can get behind them and feel a passionate stirring that these are concepts to defend, but it gnaws at me too. Is that all this is about? Something I read recently ignited a more substantial internal monologue and it is upon that where I will expound and try to make sense of my jumbled thoughts. The National Review, in a critique of several prominent Christian religious leaders who attempted to place some of the blame for the murders with the victims, said this:

We must keep clear in our minds the moral distinction here: All people have a right not to be murdered; nobody has a right not to be offended.

So I began to jostle this about in my mind as I drove around in silence today and ultimately, as things started to take shape, I did what I often do when I think I’m grasping something: I speak it aloud. Where do these so-called rights come from, and how do we know? Philosophical and historical information exists on this topic of course, but I wasn’t in the mood to research, but rather to find my own way through introspection. I wanted a clear and simple response to the charge, often leveled at me, that I’ve offended someone. The National Review writer made it seem plain when he stated unequivocally that no one has a right not to be offended, but why is that so? Why can’t someone claim that right?

The best answer that comes to me is that in order to claim such a right, I’d have to take a right away from someone else. Somehow my rights just trumped another person’s and in fact, all persons, because I claim a right not to hear, see or read things that offend me, insult me, or make me feel uncomfortable. Therefore, all persons must self-censor based on my say, and avoid offending me. Aha! That’s where the answer lies then doesn’t it? Our rights as human beings, brought about through our shared experiences over thousands of generations, are granted to us inherently by ourselves, to ourselves. I have the right to speak my mind because I can do so without stripping anyone else of their rights to do the same, or infringing upon anyone’s rights at all. What I say may be in poor taste; may even be vulgar and rude and anyone in earshot could justifiably take umbrage with having to have been on the receiving end. What can they do about it? Well, by all means exercise their right to speak their mind and tell me what they think of my recitation. Again, they can do so without infringing on my rights or asking anything of me. However, should they take sufficient offence that they strike me violently about the head and shoulders, or injure me in any way, they have now taken something from me they had no right to have. Is it partly my fault? Should I have known better? No. Absolutely not. To claim so would be the equivalent of claiming that a rape victim is partially to blame for wearing a short skirt and looking seductively at the would-be rapist. A woman can wear what she wants, say what she wants and look at anyone she wants to look at, in whatever manner she may like. She is asking nothing of anyone else in doing so, nor taking away anyone’s right to do anything. When a man forcibly invades her physical space and takes something of her, against her wishes, he has expressly violated her right to be left alone and unharmed. To blame her in any way is disgraceful, and it is inhuman.

There may be no more important concept to stand up for than the concept of human rights. The men who took the lives of those at Charlie Hebdo committed the ultimate violation of their fellow human, and there can be no justification for the horror they inflicted. They had every right to express their anger, their disappointment, their outrage even, at the magazine for their crude and distasteful portrayal of someone they held in high esteem, because to do so would take nothing from another, or ask anything of another. In fact, the battle of words may have even done some good if fought with thoughtful retorts. But instead they wrought havoc upon the world and upon themselves, and one can only try to bring forth something constructive from the chaos and senselessness of it.

On the one hand, Egypt’s President has called for a religious revolution, a new interpretation of the ideas of Islam that are pitting the Muslim world against the non-Muslim world. It’s a bold statement, especially when weighed against the actions of the theocratic government of Saudi Arabia, who has imprisoned a man for simply creating a website to allow for discussion about religion and politics. Not only has he been sentenced to 10 years in prison, and been levied a significant financial punishment as well, but he will be publicly flogged every week until a total of 1,000 lashes have been administered. His first public beating took place just yesterday. It may be entirely too much to ask that individuals come to the realization that all of our rights are invaluable and that we are duty bound as fellow human beings to respect and defend those rights, when governments publicly and openly violate them at will.

May all those who lost someone in this despicable atrocity reach a point of acceptance with their loss and find a way to continue living for the sake of living. The world mourns with you.

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