In today’s increasingly liberalized global order, a new paradigm has emerged over free speech and violence, and continues to be refined in a never ending discourse over structure, form and every accompanying nuance imaginable. At the centre of this, perhaps, is the growing advocacy over what some describe as “absurd freedoms”. Often designed to promote the pursuit of individual pleasure, many are the ideas, actions or thoughts that have received tremendous backing especially from the liberal fraternity.

The horrifying Charlie Hebdo attacks raised serious debates over free speech and the right to offend. Free speech many argue should be an absolute right. That the rather mild and moderate position that not right is absolute and so speech should be checked is not only self-defeating, it is perhaps counterintuitive and ridiculous; others have responded.

The debates that followed revealed a few interesting things. That freedom of expression is a non-negotiable right and if there were ever a need for compromise, then those who find the speech or other forms of expressions of others offensive must either respond in similar or proportionate fashion without physical violence or suck it up.

It is the point of rejection of physical violence as a legitimate response to acts that are reasonably considered offensive and abusive that this piece seeks to interrogate. A few questions arise from the above;


Embedded in the right to offend is a primary choice by the initial actor to decide what actions he/she wants to take. This is to say that in the case of Charlie Hebdo, assuming the satirists knew that their free expression would provoke/upset a group of people and still proceeded to express themselves in that manner, they would have exercised a certain right available to them as a matter of choice. If this were true, is it fair to expect of the provoked to exercise their right to respond in the manner and style similar to what those with the intention to provoke used? Where this is the case, it would appear that the right to offend is given a weightier and more significant moral status than the opposite idea of the right to react. If I were offended by an artist who depicted my mom in a drawing as a pig, the expectation that I should either respond with another piece of art or in any other way but physical violence, [even if art or word play is not my forte], is both unjust and unfair. This is so for many reasons but more importantly because it ignores premeditation by the provocateur and limits the rights of the offended narrowly to reciprocate the act of provocation or infliction of pain; a luxury that only seems available to provocateurs. If for instance I am not as good an artist or a better speaker, chances are I may not be able to reciprocate in equal measure the damage I may have endured as a result of the action of the one who insulted my mom with his art. And given that it may not be any fault of mine that I cannot either draw or speak eloquently in response, it is wrong to limit my right to choose as I please in the same manner the artist did, what my strongest sense of expression is, even if it means physical violence.

I’d even go as far as arguing that violence is a form of art, the expression of which is not even remotely sadist. Just like speech, violence seems to provide a rare opportunity to express inner thoughts, feelings and expressions in a profound way comparable to none. Whether as an act of provocation, instigation, protest or a necessary reaction to that which we disagree with or dislike, violence or distraction just like speech could be unparalleled in the fulfilment, pleasure [and sometimes] the results it provides.

It appears as the default reasoning, universally adopted even for non-pacifists that physical violence is evil, except in response to physical violence or an existential threat. Even with that, the reasonable expectation is that it be done in equal measure. Those who are offended by the conscious actions of others should have the same room to respond in a manner they please which isn’t limiting of them by using the original offensive act as the benchmark. It is akin to asking a rape victim to rape the rapist in turn even if it is not her desire to do so. If a sexual offender chose to rape, the victim should have the right to choose to remove his penis as a legitimate reaction and it would be consistent with the idea of a careful selection of an act that appropriately reminds rapists of the consequences of their actions.

More importantly on the question of why violence seems completely abominable, it may be asked;

  • Could violence be a legitimate form of expression of oneself in reaction to speech or expression that is considered hurtful from another?

The above question seeks to interrogate for instance whether it is right or legitimate for anyone offended by the Charlie Hebdo depictions to respond to what they consider offensive art or non-violent expression with violence. To this, one could argue in the affirmative. To answer in the negative would be to assume or imply that physical harm is more morally reprehensible than psychological or emotional harm. What often arises as a result of our provocative expression or ‘’free speech’’ is an attack on the very things or people others hold dearly and cherish. The consequences usually can be devastating for self-esteem and emotional or psychological wellbeing. What determines the undesirability of actions or the weight we put on them must not exclusively or even remotely be limited to how much physical harm is inflicted but how the said acts are inherently injurious and wrong. The argument goes without saying that the medium is irrelevant whether it is by a Kalashnikov or ink.

In their paper “When Hurt Will Not Heal: Exploring the Capacity to Relieve Social and Physical Pain”, researchers from Purdue University in the US and Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales in Australia found that people with emotional pain conditions reported higher levels of pain than those with physical pain conditions.

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But names will never hurt me.

A popular rhyme that feeds into the idea that somehow physical pain is far more pernicious than emotional or psychological pain. But in a report published by researchers in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, the effects of verbal abuse [for instance], was likened to nondomestic sexual mistreatment. Also in his book Cognitive Foundations of National History: Towards the anthropology of Science, Scott Atran a French-American cultural anthropologist Professor at the University of Michigan and a Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, shows that different forms of abuse other than physical violence can have significant harm on individuals and their self-esteem.

The impression therefore that is often created that physical violence is somewhat more morally wrong and reprehensible is unfounded. As widespread as the notion is, it is just an interesting expose of the double standards we have as a community on the subject. Patrons of boxing need a bit more introspection before venturing into the discussion on the moral question of whether or not physical violence is wrong in and of itself or as a response to assault of any form. As is evident in the history of human violence, there is nothing about physical violence that makes it a non-negotiable element stretching the boundaries of human endurance and permission. It follows without saying therefore that, where one’s action or speech causes significant emotional pain to another, it is reasonable for the other to respond with physical pain if he so chooses as it may well be within the boundaries of proportionality or perhaps empathy. It is not good argument to therefore simply say that spilling blood over a cartoon depiction or verbal attack is wrong merely because the sight of haemoglobin is unpleasant to you.

If the argument holds that there isn’t anything inherently different or worse about physical violence in comparison with for instance what others regard as offensive art that causes psychological pain or verbal attack that causes emotional pain, could physical violence not be likened to free speech if used in the same manner as speech is; that is to express oneself or even provoke others? In other words if one can freely express an opinion by art about me, however unpleasant or offensive either to make a statement or just to provoke a certain reaction, why can I not physically assault same or even another, as a means of expressing myself or dominance or provoking a discourse?

In conclusion, may I provoke your thought a little more?

Which is better in the quest to dealing with or preventing violence; that provocateurs/ instigators of non-physical harm be made to know that there would be no limitation in response and that any degree of reaction would be justified or the placement of burden the of circumspection and proportionate reaction on the abused/offended if he/she decides to confront the abuser?

This is to say that if Mr A was made to know that insulting [or even slapping] Mr B could attract any desirable response like hacking his head with a club by Mr B, isn’t Mr A more likely to be responsible or measured in how he chooses to engage/express himself in his 

dealings with Mr B? In all the analysis above, what is likely to happen is chaos of unimaginable proportions but if that were true, should we not begin to exercise some circumspection in how we express ourselves in relation to others given that they may well be right in principle to respond as they please? To condescendingly ask those who are offended by your acts to suck it up is to extend a legitimate invitation to them do you similarly as they please.

The ability to freely express oneself is as important as life. It was the late Christopher Hitchens who said and he was right that; “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass”. But if we are minded as a people by the intimate family hood of life, we would treat others with respect and be guided by circumspection in our interactions with them.

Indeed one is never fully tested unless he/she has the courage to exercise restraint over the expression of a right fully his/hers when it is at the crossroads with others’.  But if we are so strong in our convictions to act, provoke or even offend we must not hesitate. We must do so with all the pride we can muster but recognize with same that others reserve the right to respond however they please and if it means violence or even death to us, so be it, after all what is a life that cannot be wasted for what it believes in?

So say hello to violence; a new member of the free speech gang.


Abdul Karim Ibrahim is an award winning debater, a journalist and a social commentator. He's moderated and participated in major national and international debates, public discussions and youth development programs notably; BBC Ebola Debate in Ghana in 2015, African Youth Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Pan African Universities debate Championship in South Africa etc. He's also a recipient of the Global Centre for Transformational Leadership award in 2011 for his leadership and ideas. He hopes to promote discourse and shape official responses through social commentary.


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