Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Free Speech After Charlie Hebdo

The murder of 12 people at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has stirred up emotions and has called into question whether terror can be a legitimate threat to our system of free speech. The Charlie Hebdo killings coupled with the December terrorist threats over Sony's release of The Interview present a whole new challenge to freedom of speech in our world community.

In particular, terrorism threats from North Korea and realized terrorism in France create a new challenge for what ideologies make sense within the pluralistic world society we all live in today. In John Rawls' 1993 book Political Liberalism, the giant of 20th-century political philosophy puts forth a theory of pluralism known as the "overlapping consensus." The general idea of the overlapping consensus is that a pluralistic society is one that allows for multiple different moral outlooks (what he calls "comprehensive conceptions of the good") to exist within the society. The catch is that all of these outlooks must "overlap" on certain social values such as tolerance and rule of law.

The challenge that 2015 provides to the concept of the overlapping consensus is twofold. First, Political Liberalism does little to account for international terror and its chilling effect on free speech across societies. We can guarantee free speech within our borders, but if a country like North Korea can levy a threat from outside our society, how does a country deal with such a threat? President Obama seemed to have a fair initial response in promising a response "appropriate and proportional to the nature of [the] crime," but this is uncharted territory in international relations.

Second, the attack in France raises the question of which comprehensive moral doctrines may be so outside of the realm of the overlapping consensus that they have no place in a pluralistic society. If a moral doctrine strikes at the very core of the overlapping consensus by upending values of tolerance and rule of law, Rawls says that moral doctrine has no place in a pluralistic society. How this plays out in practice is still yet to be seen, but in a strong nationalistic state like France, it is likely to be interesting.

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