|Something nice to look at. Mass at St Augustine's,|
Ramsgate, celebrated by Fr Christopher Basden,
during the 2019 St Catherine's Trust Summer School.
This photo is to adorn a new version of the LMS
information flyer soon to be printed.
Emmanuel Macron, President of France, has ordered a crackdown on Islamic extremism following the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, in the name of free speech. As the Free Speech absolutists at Spiked have pointed out, however, this turns out to include policing the views of 10-year-old schoolchildren, who expressed sympathy with Paty’s murderer. Given that Islamic extremism, however one wants to define it in detail, is a set of ideas, I suppose it's not so surprising if countering it, in defense of free speech or for any other reason, includes intervening in the exchange of ideas.
The French state also tries to combat these ideas less directly, not only by silencing those who disagree, but by obliging them to listen, or look at something. This was essentially what cost Paty his life. In accordance, it seems, with French educational policy, he had, as Spiked expresses it,
dared to show some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Muhammad to his pupils during a lesson on why the liberties of thought and speech are so essential to the French Republic.
Bear in mind two important facts: that among other reforms, Macron is outlawing alternatives to France’s state schools (private schools and homeschooling), and that these cartoons are painfully obscene, with Our Lady, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Trinity, among their targets. I will not link to any from here… For myself, if I were obliged, on pain of imprisonment, to send my children to a state school, and if my children were then obliged to view blasphemous anti-Catholic images, then I would not, of course, behead the teacher in the street, but I certainly would not be happy about it.
Another way the French have tried to tackle the world-view of Islamism is by the enforcement of codes of dress and behaviour. So Muslim school girls are punished for wearing skirts that are not short enough: well, not just Muslim girls I assume, and indeed nuns in habits can be dragged off French public beaches. The sight of armed police threatening to pepper-spray women on beaches for being too modestly dressed is something truly new which the French have brought the world.
It is obvious that what Macron is concerned about is not freedom of expression in the normally accepted sense of the term, but adherence to a specific set of values, as dictated by the state. Not only that, but showing children cartoons and forcing them to wear short skirts is not a way of tackling their ideas rationally, through argument, but by bullying and humiliation. This is France’s post-Revolutionary, rational, secular, and supposedly freedom-loving state at work. In the words of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was an inspiration for the Revolution, if people’s ideas prevent them from being truly free, then they should be “forced to be free”.
As the history of totalitarianism has shown, such techniques can have at least some degree of effectiveness. If people see the most exalted symbols of their world-view dragged through the mud, metaphorically or indeed literally, this tends to break down their allegiance to them. It can also lead to a violent reaction, however. Since France, for all its faults, is not actually a North Korean re-education camp, there is reason to worry that the present policy will prove to be counter-productive. It is also, obviously, deeply unjust.
It would not normally be controversial to say that showing children indecent images is wrong. It is an offence against purity and a form of child abuse. If the indecent images are also calculated insults against religious figures—showing Muhammed or the Holy Trinity engaged in sexual acts, for example—then in most countries it would fall foul of hate speech legislation, and perhaps human rights protections. It is one thing to say that people should be allowed to publish such images; it is quite another to force children to view them. Indeed, this stands on its head the usual libertarian defense of indecency: that people are not obliged to view it.
I’m not a free-speech absolutist: I don’t think that the free exchange of ideas necessarily leads to the truth, for example. In Medieval Europe Church and state, with varying degrees of success, attempted to prevent the spread of heresy: thought cannot be policed directly, but the spreading of dangerous ideas can be, up to a point. Today the targets of the suppression of ideas are anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and strange ideas about 5G mobile networks, ideas which are considerably less harmful to public order, let alone to the immortal soul, than the ideas of the Lollards, which inspired sacrilegious violence in late Medieval England.
In order to suppress dangerous speech, whether it be the idea that vaccines are bad for you or the Lollard's favourite, that veneration of the Blessed Sacrament is idolatrous, you need to have a conception of what is good and what is bad. Macron’s problem is that his conception of the good apparently includes indecency and blasphemy.