Free Speech Is Not Always Therapeutic

Jan 13, 2015

The greatest tribute to those who perished in France may be to find better ways to put out the fires of terrorism. Mental health professionals are trained to use words to diffuse conflict. The pen is mightier than the sword, but it can also tempt the reckless to load their weapons.

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Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
–Voltaire

Not long ago, I wrote a blog on the risks of free speech in a decision to stage the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In my analysis, I concluded that the real life pain that the opera triggered for the remaining Klinghoffer family and other victims of any terrorist violence was not worth the benefit of exercising freedom to attend this opera that depicting the real life murder of Mr Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists. That is why I personally decided not to see the opera, even though John Adams is one of my favorite composers.

Before the release of the The Interview, a movie that makes fun ot North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea threatened Sony and the US. After a limited release, no retribution has occurred yet.

In our everyday lives, including on this blog site, distasteful, threatening, and even hate speech can be encountered on the Internet. Actual physical violence as a consequence seems thankfully rare.

Free speech
Tragically, however, terrorist threats became reality in the loss of life in France. Free speech was involved. Free speech has a long history of being valued in France since revolutionary times and the satire of authorities, including the well-known writings of Voltaire.

For some time, the weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, has been publishing satire, in the form of cartoons and words, about politicians and various religious groups, but especially Muslims. Following satiric depictions of the founder of Islam, which can be viewed as a crime by some Muslims, there was an actual firebombing of their offices a few years back. Both the French and American governments asked the publication to avoid some of the most inflammatory satire. Psychiatry is not particularly good at predicting violence, but the best predictor of future violence is past violence.

As we know by now, the first act of violence recently was the murder of 12 members of the staff, including the editorial director. One of them was also a psychiatrist/journalist; most sadly, we will never know the reaction of Dr Elsa Cayat to what happened.

A second attack, also related to free speech, occurred in a Jewish neighborhood and kosher store, where 4 Jewish hostages were killed. The Jewish religion, as well as the Catholic religion, have been targets of Charlie Hebdo, putting Jews in the crosshairs of both the satire and radical Muslims.

So far, people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds have rallied in France, as well as many other countries, against discrimination and the unacceptable violence. Masses have expressed solidarity with “I am Charlie Hebdo” proclamations, although others wonder if their satire was too extreme, distasteful, and humiliating.

For the next issue, a print run of one million is planned, well above the usual run of 60,000. Donations for the previously financially strapped publication have poured in.

Stupid speech
On French television, one of the Charlie Hebdo writers, identified as a doctor, though not a psychiatrist, justified the editorial policies “because stupidity will not win.” David Brooks, in his recent New York Times column, “I am not Charlie Hebdo,” wrote that “moreover, provocateurs and ridicules expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists.”

Stupidity? What is stupid here? Isn’t using the word stupid and its variations almost always humiliating to some degree? Enough humiliation often leads to revenge.

My grandchildren have taught me by saying over and over when I've slipped: “Don’t say stupid, Hey-Hey!”

Therapeutic speech
What does all this have to do with psychiatry? In our psychotherapeutic work, we in mental health care certainly have free speech, but we are supposed to be careful to to try to say the right thing empathetically at the right time, knowing that an ill-timed response can increase resistance to change. We should always try to treat the patient with dignity, even if they have a history of horrendous crime.

At its best, therapeutic speech can help us understand the root of psychological problems. That seems necessary with radicalized Muslims, especially those coming from Western countries like France.

Sometimes, of course, therapeutic speech is not sufficient. Action to protect lives can then be considered.

The free speech of Charlie Hebdo and some commentary afterward seems to take the opposite approach. What is the goal of severely satirizing people that you disagree with? To educate? To help resolve the conflict with Muslim extremists? To protect Western values?

This sort of questioning is meant to not blame the victims in any way. Nothing justifies what terrorists do.

However, free speech is not free. It has limits. The most obvious example is not to yell “fire” in a theatre where there is no fire.

The US Supreme Court over time has decided to make exceptions such as these: incitement, threats, obscenity, and child pornography. All of these and others are exempt from First Amendment protection, although sometimes defining what each is can be difficult.

In the case of Muslim extremists, the fire is already there, but Charlie Hebdo may be fanning the flames and spreading the fire. With the huge print run of the next issue, it will be important to see if Charlie Hebdo takes this opportunity to tone down the satire, explain why the previous satire was worth it, offer concern for the Jews in France, and provide some kind of apology to or expression of sorrow for those who have been hurt and killed.

The greatest tribute to those who perished may be to find better ways to put out such fires. Perhaps we in mental health care demonstrate how words can be used to diffuse the flames instead. Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword, but it can also tempt the reckless to load their weapons.

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