TURNING POINT: Of Truth, Freedom and Extremism

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NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/17 January) — There are thoughts to suppress, feelings to remain unexpressed, and words to keep unsaid, if you value something, like life or a relationship, more than the truth.

The truth may set you free from the burden, anxiety and pain of keeping it but never from the consequences of its disclosure. The consequences of expressing what is true could be more costly and damaging than burying it in the graveyard of silence and indifference.

While soldiers commit themselves to kill and be killed for such mythical symbolisms as patriotism, love of country and liberty, there are individuals who choose to put their lives in danger to enlighten the world with what they perceive as truth. Journalists belong to this class. They have increasingly become an endangered species in the pursuit of their calling.

They who suffered and died for truth are called by society either as martyrs, heroes or idiots. Journalists can hardly be considered as martyrs or heroes. Getting them in precarious situations is part of their job and is a personal choice. Journalists are closer to being called idiots. But this does not stop some from living and dying for what they love and what they believe.

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They had been warned. There had been attempts on their lives. Their headquarters had been fire-bombed two or three years back. They had it coming. But they were undeterred. They continued what they love to do – exposing and making fun of the shady sides of religion, ideology, politics and other beliefs and social conventions through their satirical works at the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

On Wednesday, 08 January, two hooded, heavily armed men barged into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine and executed its editor-in-chief and four other journalists. Twelve more victims, including Jews and Muslim police officers, perished in a three-day rampage and bloodshed in Paris wrought by three jihadists. The killers at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters claimed they did what they had done to avenge the Prophet Mohammed who has been depicted and ridiculed by the magazine for some time.

The barbaric execution of the journalists was calculated to strike fear in the hearts and minds of their enemies. Terrorists believe that fear paralyzes people to obedience and silence, or drive them to irrational behaviors that would lead to their eventual downfall.

The despicable strategy boomeranged. Instead of being skewered and paralyzed by fear, the chilling massacre united the people. Not only journalists but 3.7 million people in all walks of life marched bravely through France on Sunday condemning terrorism and expressing support to Charlie Hebdo and free speech.

Moreover, in a huge display of global defiance against extremism, some 40 world leaders to include that of Israel and the Palestinian Authority also joined the assembly of the million marchers in Paris to honor the victims of the tragedy and express their solidarity with the French.

Extremism is ugly and should have no place in democracy. Using guns, violence and mayhem to deliver a message and gain visibility for a cause is a mad and pointless strategy. It denies understanding and sympathy to what could be a worthy cause and proves nothing at the end. The visibility that the prophet avengers gained from their violent rampage in Paris could not compensate for the outrage and the tsunami of condemnation they received from the whole world.

But come to think of it, was not Charlie Hebdo, its journalists or cartoonists, equally guilty of the fatal extremism last week? Didn’t its untrammeled exercise of free speech contribute to the senseless killing not only of the targeted journalists but also of innocent and defenseless civilians?

The satirical magazine is known for its offensive and profane take on religion, derision of celebrities, politics, social conventions and whatever comes its way. Its journalists or cartoonists mock, ridicule, shame and even taunt people for their beliefs and practices under the cover of free speech.

Satire exposes truth in funny and sunny manner. But what could be fun for the writers and their avid followers might be unnecessarily offensive to some sensibilities, and could provoke a backlash of anger and hatred.

Freedom cannot be absolute. It has limits and must have limits in order to flourish and for everyone to enjoy. There are legal restrictions and moral and social considerations to the exercise of free speech that communication practitioners ought to observe to maintain order and sanity in society. Without observing the limits, extremism takes over and may destroy the very freedom we all cherish.

Thus extremism of all kinds should be shunned by all civilized people. (William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental.  He was a British Council fellow and trained in 1994 at Sheffield University, United Kingdom, on Participatory Planning and Environmentally Responsible Development.  Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association.)

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