Charlie and Theo

AMSTERDAM – The Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by a Muslim extremist in Amsterdam a little more than ten years ago, had much in common with the satirists of Charlie Hebdo. Like the French editors and cartoonists, he was a provocateur, a moral anarchist, a shock artist who never saw a taboo he did not wish to smash.

Because anti-Semitism is the great postwar European taboo, Van Gogh insulted Jews with crass jokes about gas chambers. Because we are told to “respect” Islam, he ridiculed Allah and his Prophet, much in the way Charlie Hebdo did.

The aim of taboo-breakers is to see how far the limits of free speech can be stretched, legally and socially. After all, despite the rather hysterical claims being made in the wake of last week’s gruesome murders, free speech is not absolute. Most European countries have laws against hate speech, including France, where it is forbidden to deny the existence of the Holocaust.

Free speech is in fact relative. What can be said by an artist or a novelist cannot be said by a judge or a politician. Some language used by African-Americans among themselves would be grossly insulting if used by a white person. And so on. Simple rules of politeness create social barriers against saying anything we want.