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