Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
The resonance of “Je suis Charlie” will be very slow to fade. It is perhaps the terror attack of recent times most focused and targeted on a value – freedom of speech. In killing what you could call “priests” of freedom of speech at Charlie Hebdo, two Islamist extremists, aspiring to be martyrs, have very effectively granted the immortality of martyrdom to the very men they sought to destroy. If this diabolical massacre were not so gut-wrenchingly tragic and horrifying, there might even be something a bit Four Lions about that.
But for those of us wishing to show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, wearing ‘Je Suis Charlie’ signs, it forces us to step back and ask, are we really? Est-ce-que nous sommes vraiment Charlie? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t published a picture of Mohammed recently. So I’m not sure I deserve that accolade. Even though I’m burning with anger and the desire to stick two fingers up at those who want to obliterate our values by the threat of violence, I haven’t even had the guts to publish a picture of a stick-man with “ceci n’est pas un prophet” underneath, a la Magritte’s famous pipe in La Trahison Des Images. (“Ah,” said Magritte, “it isn’t a pipe, it is a picture of a pipe.”)
Why? On the one hand I do not want unnecessarily to offend my moderate Muslim friends. Maybe it’s that English code of manners, based on a long-secularised New Testament Christian ethic of respecting others. And I suppose that is perhaps commendable. On the other hand – I confess, a much stronger hand – I don’t really want to be worried that some lunatic, who has been indoctrinated by another, more sinister control-freak lunatic, is going to blow me up. Not for that; not for a cartoon. I’ve got stuff to do in my life before that happens! No, I’d be scared. That is not commendable, and in that, I am not Charlie. My only comfort is: neither is pretty much anyone else.
But we can be Charlie in other ways. Whilst we like to take the moral high-ground and condemn any religion that does not tolerate being mocked, we may be missing the plank in our own societal eye. Religions don’t need to involve monotheistic belief systems. ‘Not Offending Certain Groups’ has become like a religion – which is why it was just a little confusing to see so many who are usually the first to bewail that their rights have been encroached upon because they have been somehow ‘offended’ (often simply by the use of a word) – waving pencils of free speech so trenchantly.
Just think of everything we can’t say. I’m not going to list all these things – I just don’t think the ridiculous hassle I’d undergo if I did would be worth it (and that truly is a sad state of affairs.) But the very fact that you know exactly what I mean without my having uttered a single syllable makes my point. No, Jeremy Clarkson wasn’t criticised for omitting to edit a word in a traditional nursery rhyme, but I hardly think that episode is indicative of a society that enshrines freedom of speech at its heart.
It’s not only words or items of vocabulary we can’t say, either. There are objective, scientifically proven facts too – that have somehow, through the silent growth of this religion, become so taboo that to state these bare facts is as suicidal as saying “This piece of Halibut is good enough for Jehovah” in The Life of Brian’s 33AD.
Nowhere is the Religion of ‘Not Saying’ stronger than in politics. For years, The priests of this religion decreed to their congregation, the politicians, that ‘Thou shalt not talk about Immigration’. So we didn’t. But the facts happened around us. Our silence did not change the reality we wished to ignore. But then other people did talk about it. Then UKIP was born. And we all now acknowledge we should have been talking about it, and acting on it, a lot, lot earlier.
Now it is the NHS at the heart of our sacred taboos – and heaven forfend if you sin and are fool-hardy enough to point out that the Emperor has no clothes: that a system designed in post-war England simply is not equipped to deal with the explosion in population, rocketing costs in ever advancing treatment, and an exponentially expanding elderly population with complex co-morbidities, coupled with a much greater ability to rescue infants from death who would previously have died, together with a generation with ever increasing expectations of having what we want ‘here’ and ‘now’.
The most dangerous aspect of this ‘Religion’ is that it prevents anyone from sensibly discussing solutions. Norman Warner was criticised for exploring a solution – one which I do not think is right, but he should have been given the freedom to at least discuss it. The NHS is now being destroyed by all the very worst aspects of religion: those aspects that get created by humans who see themselves as these religions’ guardians to preserve their own power, and which outlaw the exposition of facts and reason.
But if we value the things around which we have built a religion, and want to preserve their fundamental values – quality care free at point of need in the NHS for example – we all, the public, the media and politicians – must all become ‘Charlie”: break those taboos, and celebrate, not persecute, others doing so too. That would be a real tribute to freedom of speech for the public good.