On Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of speech is morally relative, at least for the West

obama-criticism-paris-rally.si ‘Edgy and provocative’ – that is how most people interpret the cartoons which provoked the terrorist attack on the French weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Indeed, the terrorist attack is a lamentable act of defiance, especially in a world where the supposed champions of liberal democracy bombard the news with who is supposed to express and protect ‘freedom of speech’.

But in a world where the concept of the ‘clash of civilizations’ is screaming its urgency, the political right to one’s opinion is sadly becoming a tool to circumvent what would otherwise be a morally questionable act that is not acceptable in a different culture.

For his part, and despite being absent in the Paris Unity march where some 50 world leaders rallied to defy violence, Obama expressed his “deepest sympathy and solidarity to the people of France following the terrible terrorist attack in Paris”. Earlier, the US president said that “the fact that this was an attack on journalists, attack on our free press, also underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press…a universal belief in the freedom of expression, is something that can’t be silenced because of the senseless violence of the few.”

Thus to sum what he stands for, Obama, and the West made us believe that they are the standard bearer of what a free society should be – a society where the freedom of speech (and criticism) can be in any form, no matter how offensive.

When others are not entitled to defy satirical narrative

Just back in December, a cyber-attack was launched against Sony Pictures when a preview of their satirical movie “The Interview” was leaked and the Western mainstream media quickly branded the attacks as ‘state sponsored terrorism’, which was blamed on North Korea.

In the movie, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is shown to be the target of an assassination. Following the news of the attacks, the US president was quick to blame the cyber-attack to have originated from North Korea.

From a moral standpoint, a society that reacts emotionally to a depiction of their leader as having been a target of harm should be understandable. Simply put, such depiction of harm, even in a satirical manner, is not a laughing matter. How would Americans react if Obama was put in the same satirical narrative?

Freedom of expression should have limitations

For all its complexities, the least that a government should guarantee is to confine, if not limit, the concept of political expression. There is no denying that freedom of speech is one of the qualities of a democratic society. Conversely, to avoid clashing with other cultures, it is best for governments to confine freedom of expression to their own borders – that is to encourage freedom of speech on domestic matters while limiting speech that might provoke other societies. Thus, the recent Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks have shown that out-of-control freedom of speech should have its own limits. In this case, it is clear that Muslims did not ‘buy’ what is supposed to be a ‘joke’.

As opposed to the West’s call for the ‘protection of freedom of expression’, it might be that the opposite should be what their society must pursue: to shut up, mind their own business, and avoid offending others. Indeed, moral relativism has its own perils: the West should start realizing this if they are to avoid harm, in a satirical manner or otherwise.

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2015: The World Ahead

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It is undeniable that a new calendar year has its own transformational effect on everyone: if only the start of a new year has the power to recalibrate world events to more optimistic trajectories. The year 2014 saw an avalanche of disasters, from wars in the Middle East, to the unrest in Ukraine, to the triple air disasters, to the resurgence of Ebola in Africa and the collapse of oil markets towards the end of the year.

In almost every global issue, 2014 has strained not just the wits of our leaders, but also the resources that were required to tackle them. Indeed, we can only wish that humanity’s problem-solving vigor does not fatigue itself in the year 2015. What then are we to expect for the year ahead?

On the economy front, the United States, still the world’s biggest economy (but not anymore in a few years’ time), is expected to slowly move out of its unemployment woes which in effect will help in improving its GDP. Economists are looking at 3% growth with unemployment going down to a modest 5.3%. They also predict a stronger dollar against the euro and the Japanese yen.

Economists also predict continued growth for China, but at a slower pace in the months ahead. As for Germany, the Eurozone’s economic powerhouse (and savior), its giant trade surplus will likely shrink this year. Already a legitimate and a functioning entity, the Eurasian Economic Union, a rival to the European Union, already came into effect on January 2, 2015. It comprises the initial countries of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Belarus. Despite its potential competition with the EU, the new EAEU called for “start(ing) official contacts between the EU and the EAEU as soon as possible”.

For the rest of the world, most economists agree that the world is headed for a better economic outlook in 2015. For instance, the International Monetary Fund predicts the global economy to expand to 3.8% this year, compared to 3.3% in 2014. Such growth is the fastest since 2011, and the downward spiral of oil prices means businesses and consumers alike will have more money to spend on other things. On the energy side, economists predict still lower oil prices in 2015, thanks to continued oversupply and the reluctance of oil majors to cut production.

Political activity in major European countries like the UK, Greece, and Spain will see an interesting shakeup this year. Starting with Greece, concerns in Brussels will finally see the light (or dark) if a left-wing party challenges the present austerity measures and with it, bring back memories of a Greek exit from the Eurozone. At 24% unemployment, similar public sentiment in Spain will test the euro-wide policy of austerity in the coming Spanish local elections. In the UK, general elections will be held in May as well, where the dissolution of the present Parliament will likely take place, while political rivalries are expected to be ‘neck-and-neck.’

Another notable mention is the expiration of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on December 31, 2015. Discussions as to what will replace it, along with which priorities should be set, are already underway, with some prominent leaders suggesting a focus on broadly the same issues for global development, while others suggest embarking on the newer UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs). Regardless of the global issues that will be focused on, the new goals will represent the most challenge to Ban Ki-moon and represent the most important legacy as he leaves the UN after his term ends in late 2016.