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Satire and bullets

By Odysseus Tsagarakis The recent massacre at Charlie Hebdo demonstrates, I think, that unrestrained freedom of expression can have disastrous consequences. Its cartoonists, as is well known, published offensive drawings of the Prophet Mohammad. In western societies, we cherish freedom of speech. The problem is that all too often we exceed the golden rule, the “pan …

Odysseus Tsagarakis
Odysseus Tsagarakis

By Odysseus Tsagarakis

The recent massacre at Charlie Hebdo demonstrates, I think, that unrestrained freedom of expression can have disastrous consequences. Its cartoonists, as is well known, published offensive drawings of the Prophet Mohammad.

In western societies, we cherish freedom of speech. The problem is that all too often we exceed the golden rule, the “pan metron ariston” (“all in good measure”), as the Greeks phrased it. If there are holy men and observances we do not like, and they get in the way of a harmonious living of people with diverse cultural backgrounds, we should try to change or improve them by means of dialogue (the quintessence of democracy), without hurting the feelings of their believers and without ridiculing the inherent religious concepts.

Freedom of expression was born in Greece. When the Athenian democracy was strong, it allowed (for a short period of time) ridicule and criticism of its institutions and citizens. The famous comic poet Aristophanes, who used obscene language abusively, satirised everything and everybody in his plays, including the gods, even the dead (e.g. in the “Frogs”), and won literary prizes.

At the same time, however, democracy was not tolerant to the philosopher Anaxagoras (let alone Socrates), who declared that the sun was a “burning mass”, not a deity. He was accused of impiety (political motives may have played a role as in the case of Socrates) and sentenced to death (but he fled Athens, unlike Socrates, who stayed and died for his beliefs and principles). We see that, on the one hand, democracy safeguarded and guaranteed freedom of expression, and on the other hand, it punished contentious and “heretic” views on popular beliefs.

Our western concepts of democracy and freedom of speech may not be shared by people of different religious backgrounds. It is, therefore wise, for our symbiosis, that in our literary and cultural endeavours we observe the maxim “all in good measure”; it has proved timeless. If we don’t, confrontation will be unavoidable and dangerous, as the Paris massacre proves.

To put it another (Greek) way: “meden agan” (nothing in excess). Because of the “excess” of a few journalists, many innocent people lost their lives. Their “agan” (excess) was ridiculing the holy man – symbol for millions of Muslims. We should desist from poking fun at whatever other people hold sacred and cherish.

If the talented journalists had wanted to follow the inspiring example of Aristophanes, they surely challenged their fate. If modern democracy does not deal out death as punishment, fanatics do in their protean ways. Yes to freedom of speech, no to unrestrained freedom.


Odysseus Tsagarakis is a Professor emeritus at the University of Crete in Classical Studies, specialised in Greek epic poetry and Archaic Greek lyric

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  • sam enslow

    The cartoons killed no one. People did. Aristophanes and Old Comedy thrived when the Greeks felt confident in themselves. As seen in The Symposium, the author if Clouds and Socrates were friends. It was a shaken Greece that killed Socrates although, unlike Anaxoras, never concerned himself with the physical sciences. Greece gave up its Golden Age because it became afraid, and the death of Socrates remains a blot on Greece’s history.
    The Paris cartoons and its form of statire were crude. The rag was going broke. Had those offended, who would have found another reason to be offended, just ignored the paper or written responses to it, they would have won. Freedoms must be protected and not sacrificed to the lowest common denominator The course of Greek history after the death if Socrates proves my point. In confident societies two forms of literature thrive , poetry and satire.

    • O. Tsagarakis

      Thank you for reading my paper and commenting on it. While I, like you, believe that artists (poets, playwrights, authors, etc.) should be free to express themselves in a responsible manner and criticize what they think or feel is wrong with society and its insitutions, I don’t think they should blaspheme and utterly ridicule what people hold sacred and holy. I’m a firm supporter of the freedom of speech, but I also believe that there must be limits to what we say and do. If we overstep the limits we commit what the ancient Greeks called hybris, which brings about punishment (nemesis), divine or human.

      • sam enslow

        Hybrid is taking upon oneself those things that belong only to the gods. Agamemnon was OK in spite of his behavior until he walked on a carpet reserved for the gods. Judging another is God’s job. This is true in Islam where it is forbidden to tell another that their life doesn’t please God or to ascribe human emotions to God.
        If one limits speech because one might offend someone’s religion where do you stop? It might offend a king, ones patriotism, ethnicity? Soon you are left with New Comedy or modern sit comes. Raw humor often serves to open discussions of sensitive subjects and can actually remove the fears of discussing them. Some of America’s greatest civil rights advocates, like Dick Gregory, used humor as their main tool.

        • sam enslow

          By the way, I personally would not draw or publish such cartoons.

    • Illuminati

      Well, you see Sam, we have two debates here that need to be discussed separately.

      1. Should someone retaliate to being offended by bombing those who offended him, and in doing so, kill few more that had nothing to do with it? NO, NO and NO. I agree with you that we could have ignored it, or written letters, or even published a magazine in response, or collected money, bought the paper, racked it up with debt and liquidated it!

      2. Should I be forced to take no offense when the head figure of my religion is cheaply denigrated by someone who has a deeply rooted distaste for my beliefs? Well, no, not so much. I can’t use my first amendment rights to use the N word, can I? I have watched a president of a university in the US step down because of comments he made about rape, comments which I found to be in the context of fatherly advise, while others viewed it as belittling to women. As a matter of fact, Charlie Hebdo itself fired one of its staff members for 20 years in 2009, Maurice Sinet, when he suggested that Jewishness was correlated to social and economic success. (Maurice won a wrongful termination suit against Hebdo though).

      It would be reasonably fine if freedom of speech gives you the right to provoke me, my identity, even my ethnicity. You are right to contend that civilizations collapsed when they grew shaky and afraid, and that Muslim civilization is no different. Well then, you can say that the entire Muslim world is rotten and corrupt, or that Muslim ways and tradition are primitive and hostile to modernity, etc etc. These claims are being made every day, and it is our job, as Muslims, to prove it wrong, or ignore it if we choose to do so. But when a publication decides to take it a step further, and cross the one red line that most Muslims care about, not only might this invokes reprisal, it even evokes few legal questions:
      Is the cartoon published libelous? If so, can we prove malice and sue for general damages? And if a court accepts the filing, who has a standing to sue? Most states allow a persons surviving family members to bring action for damages but in the case of Prophet Muhamad, who can we identify as family members?
      So the bottom line is, we can’t claim that such provocation are fully protected under first amendments when there is in fact numerous occasions when these same courts rendered different opinions (see some examples below). We can’t also claim first amendment protection where there is no process in place to sue for libel or slander in the event that someone some institution to decide to take it up a notch. And last, I would personally love to see consistency between our views on freedom of expression and inciting hatred.

      Check the ADL case Vs Pine Bush school district in White Plains NY.

      * French court of Appeals ruled in favor of Union of Jewish Students over the hashtag #UnBonJuif (Good Jew). As a result of the ruling, twitter had been forced to remove content viewed as Anti Semetic.

      * A French comedian, who is accused of anti Semitism, had his show cancelled by La Rouchelle municipality. He sued for damages and was awarded $50,000, only for an appeals court to reverse the ruling. His show was stopped for its perceived anti Semitism, and he could not be awarded damage.

      Read about RV Keegstra: a landmark freedom of expression decision of the Supreme Court of Canada where the court upheld the Criminal Code of Canada provision prohibiting the wilful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group as constitutional under the freedom of expression provision in section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

  • Reda Sobky

    The cartoon is a symbol that, in the West I live in, means that anything is publishable and protected and nothing is sacrosanct with few exceptions that relate to hate speech, threats and state secrets. After one is in such an environment for some time one comes to see these events as expressions of where the creator is with the issue and not as much as defining the issue. The cartoon then speaks more about the paper and its editorial staff than it does about religion. So one could read the situation as you said, people trying to attract attention to themselves by using sacred material in a humorous context to ridicule a certain profile. Tempest in a teapot that one gets used to quickly. However, in the middle east every statement and every opinion and every drawing is evaluated based on some concept of offense taken by its publication of any forbidden subject or treatment. Ridicule in the middle east means something else and the community’s ability to control speech and publication is viewed differently in terms of betraying intent and certain intents are prohibited such as the intention to diminish religion thus leading people away from religion, for example.
    I don’t think any of the Greek material that follows has any relevance to the subject at hand and just confuses the issues by recontextualizing the situation in a non monotheistic setting. Monotheism is unique in that it is exclusivist and recognizes nothing outside itself such as polytheism, atheism or post theism, something unheard of in Greek times.

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