Sunday, January 11, 2015

Freedom to criticize? Yes, but let's not forget that others can criticize us too

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the “I am Charlie” manifestations, somebody shared an interesting video on Youtube. The video was made by the ARAM Production house and explains that freedom of speech and Islam both contribute to a peaceful world – as long as they are not abused. 

Video by ARAM Production - English with Chinese subtitles 

While condemning any attacks in the name of Islam, the video also says that freedom of speech is not a blank check. It is important to remind this fact given all the people waving “I am Charlie” posters today. Freedom of speech also carries a responsibility. 

In this context, it is quite interesting to take a look at the discussions in China about the Charlie Hebdo attack. Some Chinese commentators take offense when Europeans and Americans declare our Western concept of freedom of speech as a universal value (see tweet below for example. In their view, it shows a degree of Western arrogance that the Chinese have long despised. Put bluntly, in our self-centered look at the world we fail to notice that there are other philosophies in this world that deserve to be listened to. And we should not exclude by default that other philosophies may offer things to this world that are superior to our own thinking. 

 In a more general manner, these Chinese commentators take offense that the debate in Europe is so disproportionately focused on bad things that happen to Europe because of influences from outside. What the Chinese would like us to do is take a more critical look at the negative influence that we and our so-called universal values have exported from European soil to the rest of the world. The Chinese have not forgotten the atrocities that we have committed in China and in the world in the last 200 years. And when we remember that these atrocities have given us wealth and development while locking the rest of the world into underdevelopment, we can never stop apologizing. The negative side of our Western influence on the world has so far been excluded from the European debate - and it should not be so. 
You could say that the Chinese are free to criticize us in as many articles as they like, the same as we criticize human rights and environmental mismanagement in China. But that would be to judge by Western values and mistake the Chinese philosophy. Yes, they did resort to criticism once by calling the UK “merely a country of old Europe with a few decent football teams” and it spurred a lot of offended talk in the British press. But in general, open criticism is not common to China. In return, if we praise our philosophy for its freedom to criticize, Chinese commentators expect us to also apply that criticism to ourselves. 

Bottom line: While we should uphold our freedom to criticise others, we should never forget that others also hold criticism against us. If we are taking freedom of speech seriously, that criticism maybe deserves a bit more attention in our media in the future.

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