You Can’t Say That!
by David Ash
This talk was given in the context of a morning assembly in a secondary school in
Birmingham (U.K.) shortly after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015.
“You can’t say that!” How often, I wonder, has that thought crossed your mind as you have
listened to someone say something controversial or insulting? We all know that there are
things which should not be said in certain situations; and so, at times, we exercise control
over our words. There are things you just don’t say to teachers, for example, however
strongly you feel them, unless you’re having a really bad day. And, if you’re sensible, there
are things you don’t upload to social media, don’t say to policemen, don’t write to
girlfriends or boyfriends, because common sense tells you that there will be consequences.
At least, that’s the self-centred reason: staying out of trouble. If you’re wise, if you
understand empathy, you will also give some thought to the effect of your words on other
people’s feelings. You will avoid giving offence because you can imagine what it feels like to
be on the receiving end.
“You can’t say that!”, or perhaps “Cela ne se dit pas!”, is unlikely to have been among the
slogans chanted in France on the 10th and 11th January 2015 when 3.7 million people took
to the streets. You are unlikely to have heard it for at least two reasons. The first is that the
marches were a deeply emotional reaction by a traumatised nation to a crime of
unspeakable brutality. People were not so much thinking with their heads as reacting with
their hearts; and who can blame them? This was not a time to debate the rights and wrongs
of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons but to join together in a collective cry of defiance. Defiance in
the teeth of those who had tried to use violence to frighten people into silence.
The other reason why you will not have heard marchers shouting “You can’t say that!” or
maybe, “You can’t draw that!” is that the attack was, in their view, a deliberate assault on
one of the supporting pillars of freedom itself. What the French call “la liberté d’expression”,
freedom to express yourself, is woven into their national character. It is a foundation stone
of their culture. It is enshrined in law. It is taught at school. It is a principle which, since it
was first formulated, has spread around the world to become part of the bedrock of most
democratic countries. You cannot understand the strength of the reaction to these events
unless you know a little about how that happened. So let me, briefly, try to sketch in a few
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a peasant living in a French village in the late 18th
century. You’ve been born into a country where all the money and the privileges belong to
someone else. You are ruled by a king who is surrounded by an aristocracy who own most of
the land and who treat you like dirt. The ruling classes, meanwhile, are hand in glove with
the Roman Catholic Church, which tells you what to believe and seeks to control your
behaviour. The harvest has failed, the price of bread has skyrocketed and your wife and
children are starving. France’s wars have left the country so deep in debt that the King is
imposing more taxes. And, in recent months, people in the village have been talking about a
group of radical thinkers with names like Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot who are spreading
some really interesting ideas. You’re no intellectual, but you understand them well enough
when they say that all men should be free and equal, that laws should be based on reason
rather than tradition. You respond warmly to the thought that the power of the King and
the Church should be limited, that all beliefs and none should be tolerated, that no-one
should be persecuted for what they think.
Fast forward to the summer of 1789, and all that frustration, anger and resentment,
combined with those brave, new ideas of freedom, has boiled over in a revolution, the
French Revolution, which has swept away the old world and replaced it with a new order. At
times, it was a bloodbath. But it wasn’t long before those in charge started to establish
order. And a new order needs some kind of organising principle.
There was a lot of scribbling, but eventually, when the smoke cleared, one document
emerged to become the foundation stone of the new French republic. It was called “The
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”. It is, arguably, the fundamental document
in the history of human rights.
The Declaration is not a long document and the ideas it contains have, over the past 200
years or so, provided the supporting framework on which French society has been built. It is
divided into 17 short phrases or articles and there are two to which I would like to draw
your attention, Article 4 and Article 11.
Article 11 says this: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most
precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with
freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”
That last clause is interesting, because much of the debate now raging around the Charlie
Hebdo affair has to do with the definition of freedom of communication. People are asking
whether the cartoonists abused it by producing drawings which many people, myself
included, found obscene and deeply offensive. Those who took to the streets last week
appeared to be suggesting that anyone should be free to say anything they like about
anyone else, however insulting.
But the more enlightened among them, especially if they were French, would have been
aware that Article 4 of the same document puts things in a different light. It says this:
“Liberty consists of the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” If you’re a
French Muslim, a French Christian or a French Jew, and if your definition of the word
“injures” includes injury to your feelings or to your religious sensibilities, then you will
probably be amongst the growing number who are now calling for a debate about where
the boundary lies between your freedom to express yourself and my freedom to be
protected from insult and ridicule. There are many people, not only in France, who
recognise that freedom of expression has limits, that I am not free to offend you, that I
should show respect for your beliefs and customs, even if I disagree with them. Americans
put it this way: “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”. And the
Pope, speaking last week, expressed it much more simply. “You cannot provoke. You cannot
insult the faith of others.”
This weekend, an opinion poll was published in the French press. Its findings were so
surprising that it made the front pages and generated headlines like, “Are the French
schizophrenic?”. It revealed that about half the population now think that limits should be
imposed on freedom of expression and that account should be taken of religious
sensibilities before potentially offensive material is published. That is not the impression
created by last week’s marches, but it does give us reason to hope that, when the people of
France have had time to think about these matters, a greater wisdom may prevail.
As many of you know, the motto of the French republic is “liberté, égalité, fraternité”
(“freedom, equality, brotherhood”). Since 1905, a fourth word has been hovering around the
edges of that list and, last week, we heard politicians calling for it to be included officially.
That word is laïcité. It is very difficult to translate well. Roughly speaking, it means that any
reference to religion is banned from public arenas such as schools and universities. It is
illegal in France to wear anything at school, a cross, a turban, a burqa, that proclaims your
religious faith. It is illegal to discuss religion in class other than in the context of history
lessons. There is no religious education in State schools.
On the day of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the French Minister of Education wrote a letter
to all schools which included this: “The Republic has entrusted to schools, since its very
beginning, the mission of training citizens, of transmitting the fundamental values of
freedom, equality, brotherhood and laïcité.” There’s a lot to think about in that sentence.
The idea that schools are seen as the means by which the State transmits values to its
citizens echoes debates in our own country about the teaching of so-called “British values”
and raises questions about what school is for. While we, in the UK, are having immense
difficulty in agreeing on what British values might be, the French Republic has no such
doubts. In France, they include freedom of conscience, equality, tolerance, the rejection of
racism but, in this secular State, there is no place for religion.
La laïcité is an attempt to be even-handed, to treat atheists and believers alike. But you will,
I am sure, have seen the irony. How odd that, on the one hand, France demands freedom of
expression for all and, on the other, makes it illegal to discuss, in the relatively safe confines
of the classroom, the one topic which, carefully handled, could help to reduce tensions and
misunderstandings. Why is it that religion alone is singled out for this treatment? Could this
be part of the reason why French Muslims in particular feel so misunderstood and
Don’t scoff at religious education or at opportunities to discuss religious faith in school. They
are some of the few opportunities you get to gain an understanding of people whose beliefs
are different from yours. Such discussions help to inoculate you against intolerance and
teach you humility. One of our French Language Assistants told me last week how grateful
and proud she feels as someone brought up in the French system, to be living and working
in a school and a city where everyone is free to discuss and to advertise their beliefs, to
wear what they like, to worship as they choose. She sees it as one of our great strengths, as