I will start by saying that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the murder of cartoonists, their editor and others is atrocious, and despicable and in no way, shape or form do my feelings about Charlie Hebdo condone what happened this week. The men who gunned down unarmed, innocent people were low down, dirty criminals. They weren’t martyr’s they weren’t good Muslims. They were monsters.
With that said, when I first saw the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo was publishing, I was offended. I was repulsed and revolted by some of the images I saw they’d produced and passed on to the public as ‘satire’.
These are just two samples of the type of imagery they produced.
Satire, is described as: The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
Neither one of those images fit into that category. They are mean spirited images.
As we rightly condemn the senseless and barbaric murders of journalists in Paris can we still manage to have a rational conversation about free speech, without the empty platitudes about how these cartoonists were “heroes?” For instance, I believe it is possible to agree that free speech is an essential value, and that journalists should have the right to say what they want — even to offend others — without then proceeding to act as though every act of speech (just because people have a right to it) is therefore worth defending as to its substance, and that free speech protects one from being critiqued for the things one says. What I mean is this: I have a right, I suppose, to stand in the middle of Times Square and shout racial or religious slurs. And I surely should be able to do that without fear of being murdered for it. This last point in particular is so obvious as to be beyond debate, I would hope. But if I do this, whether in Times Square or in print, it makes me an asshole, and one who deserves to be labeled as such. Not a hero, but an asshole. And I don’t become a hero just because I insulted people, some of whom might be even bigger assholes than me, and so dangerous and unstable that they decide to hurt me. People seem to confuse the principle of free speech with the idea that one’s speech should be protected from pushback; and while violent pushback is always wrong—always—I am uncomfortable with the idea that we should make heroes out of people whose job appears to have been to insult people they considered inferior to themselves. Especially because, historically, satire has always been about barbs aimed at those who are MORE powerful than oneself (the elite, royalty, the dominant social, economic, political or religious group), rather than being aimed down the power structure at those with less power. To satirize people who are the targets of institutionalized violence (whether for religious or racial or cultural or linguistic or sexual or gendered reasons) is not brave. It’s sort of shitty, in fact. Should it be protected legally? Sure. Should those who do it be killed or punished in any way? Of course not. But should we hold them up as exemplars of who we want to be, all the while ignoring how the exercise of their freedom, without any sense of responsibility to the common good, actually feeds acrimony and violence on all sides? I think not. I really think we need to be talking about this.
Both of these pieces remind me of what I talked about a few days ago, about “emotional compassion”. Free speech is something every human being should be entitled to have, and not fear any violent or legal repercussions, but with that right, should come responsibility. Responsibility to be conscious of how our words (or in this case ‘images’) can hurt, be offensive, cause harm. Can we imagine for one moment, if no one in the world had emotional compassion? If everyone said, or wrote hateful things about others just because they could? The world as we know it would cease to exist and we would rapidly devolve into a warring, angry, lowly pit of human interaction.
No one from Charlie Hebdo should have died for their speech, and certainly the innocent bystanders did not deserve death, and frankly, the perpetrators did not deserve death, but I cannot say that #iamcharliehebdo, because I am not. I choose to be emotionally mindful of my words and my actions, and I choose to disagree and even dislike in a civil and respectful manner.