Forum: Using freedom of speech as form of aggression is misuse

I refer to the Opinion piece (Freedom of speech: An appeal to Europe, Nov 28). One person's freedom ends where another person's begins.

I am a product of the French state education system, promoting freedom ("Liberty, equality, fraternity" appears on the front of state schools) and an aspect of it, secularism.

But I cannot help feeling embarrassed by the words of French officials in the wake of recent attacks in France, defending total freedom of expression, even if it means offending some people's most precious values.

Since the 19th century, France has had satirical newspapers criticising any authority. The predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, the newspaper that published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad that led to deadly attacks in France in 2015, mocked the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle in 1970. Most people do not mind such disrespect. Some find it funny. But some do not appreciate the fun.

This attitude towards the government and religion is a reaction to centuries of absolute monarchy and heavy influence of the Catholic church on politics and education, which hampered most people's lives and ended with a bloody revolution at the end of the 18th century and the separation of the state and the churches in 1905.

Since then, the French have protected their painfully conquered freedom jealously, including by challenging anything that may harm it, triggering visceral reactions.

I believe the large number of Covid-19 cases in France is partly a result of people's reticence to respect the government's recommendations.

Freedom of speech is good when used to denounce flaws and suggest improvements. But using it to be aggressive to others is misuse. Defamation laws cannot address all such cases or fully heal the harm caused.

Ultimately, it is a matter of judgment. When you make a joke, you must know whom you address.

The same joke can lead one person to laugh out loud, and another person to punch you. It needs a lot of wisdom to stay calm if someone triggers a sensitive point.

French officials would have acted in a smarter way if, besides reaffirming the lawful freedom of speech and condemning any aggression against its expression, they had advised people not to misuse it through wantonly aggressive words and to mind others' values more.

Do Singaporeans fully appreciate living in a country where respect of differences is strongly encouraged, and so avoids many issues affecting other countries today?

Jean-Michel Bardin

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