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Freedom of Speech Versus Freedom of Religion? Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie

02/06/2015 12:36 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT
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A seller of newspapers installs in shelf, several Charlie Hebdo newspapers at a newsstand in Nice southeastern France, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. On front page reading "All is forgiven". Charlie Hebdo's defiant issue is in print, with a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover and a double-page spread claiming that more turned out Sunday to back the satirical weekly "than for Mass." Twelve people died when two masked gunmen assaulted the newspaper's offices on Jan. 7, including much of the editorial staff and two police. (AP Photo/ Lionel Cironneau)

Most often when I write, the thoughts and then words are percolating for some time before I start typing. So when the words appear on the screen in front of me, it's at best cathartic and at a minimum, a relief. This time is different. I guess I haven't considered myself a "writer," much like being in the financial services industry for almost 20 years, doesn't make me a "banker." However, since the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and aftermath, I've thought about the craft of expressing oneself with freedom more seriously. Let's just say these words percolated a lot longer than others.

The Huffington Post has generously provided me with a platform to express myself. Through this effort, I'm free to reach an audience and they in turn are free to respond and comment. This symbiotic relationship seems part of the natural order of things in an online media environment. It may even appear that writers are untethered in their right to put content into the world for consumption. It's not true.

Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday and raised the tension between the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion saying that "Just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't question those who would insult others in the name of free speech." The freedom of expression, in reality, is not absolute but a continuum. I'm unsure who said it but the truth is, your right to swing your fist stops at my nose.

"Words are things," said Maya Angelou. Whether we're talking about words or pictures, these are physical expressions of thoughts and emotions, hence making them as powerful as they are. So all that we express rides on this continuum from hateful to offensive to inappropriate to acceptable to loving. Where that message ends up on that continuum is not up to you, the creator or the sender, it's up to the receiver.

So there is the quandary of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and the subsequent uprisings by Muslims that also resulted in deaths.

Through a western lens of the world, a cartoon is meant to amuse, mask an message or comment or provoke a discussion. Nothing should be off the table, right? However, an illustration of depicting child pornography, or homophobic message or antisemitic views are not innocuous, as they should not be. We largely agree that our tolerance for such content is on the extreme end of the continuum as hateful and disgusting. So why are we surprised to see the outrage by Muslims who seem to largely agree that depicting their prophet, not ours, maybe equally as offensive?

In a world that has created the easy freedom of speech, social, political and religious boundaries don't seem to apply. But they still do. Content can be illegal in some countries and not others. When a country welcomes immigrants and allows them to practise their religion then their right to a singular lens of the world is forfeited. The opportunity to retain our Freedom of Speech lies in demonstrating more understanding of the multitude of perspectives globally and delivering content that doesn't intend to deliberately provoke or offend. These are inclusive societies. This is as important an effort, as the expectation of tolerance by all those who are afforded a platform of expression. Sensitizing ourselves does not mean sanitizing all that we say, write or draw. It means that once you realize your fist reaches someone's nose, you stop punching.