Recent events in Paris and Belgium have been on my mind of late, which got me thinking about self-expression, and the right to do so without fearing harm or prejudice. Advertising has always had its tongue firmly planted in cheek, often marred in controversy that’s resulted in vociferous complaint, censorship and in some cases, even public outrage. Who can forget the kissing priest and nun from Benetton’s provocative billboard ad series? Or PETA’s much talked about advertising campaign that attempted to draw parallels between the Holocaust and animal rights, and managing to piss off a whole lot of people in the process? In each instance though, the advertising standards authority served as a gatekeeper, acting as the moral compass for upholding what should or shouldn’t be deemed suitable for public consumption.
But what about cases where the only regulation applied is of a self-imposed nature? Who decides the rules around what’s considered ‘below the belt’, or in bad taste? Is there a point when free speech stops being about expression, and instead takes on the role of being inflammatory, causing deliberate offense and/or something much more nefarious in nature? Perhaps Parisian journalist Nabila Ramdani best summed up my sentiment towards the whole debacle in a Guardian opinion piece:
‘…a satirical magazine is meant to defy the herd; to cause outrage through biting wit and originality…’
Charlie Hebdo has a long history of provocation, and mocking religion has been a fairly easy, predictable theme frequently represented in their artwork. It would be fair to say that we live in times where there is an increasing apathy towards organized religion. This has perhaps encouraged speaking out about topics that once may have been considered taboo or blasphemes. Religion should not be immune from being criticized or satirised within the realm of self-expression. Yet, does it make it okay to knowingly ridicule, probe and purposefully provoke in the name of freedom of expression? Regardless of your viewpoint (and mine), free speech should remain a central pillar of democratic societies everywhere, and as guardians of that right, we must do everything we can to protect it’s survival. Everything.