Thursday, January 08, 2015
There are a lot of people writing critical essays denouncing the outpouring of support for the cartoonists and staff of Paris' Charlie Hebdo magazine by citizens around the world, in the wake of yesterday's terrorist massacre in their offices. These writers are saying, essentially, that the cartoonists and editors at Charlie Hebdo were a bunch of privileged, white, male, racists who hated Islam. Some are claiming they were talentless hacks whose humor was sophomoric at best; that they hid behind free speech to promote hate and discrimination, especially towards France's fairly large (>8%) population of Muslims. I think these people are entirely missing the point of the rallies of support. The magazine's content is not the issue here: free speech is. Freedom of speech is a basic human right provided for in virtually every democratic and republican country. There are exceptions in some countries where certain speech is not allowed. Those exceptions mostly address words used to incite or create violence, physical threat, or terror. As well, certain criticisms and untruths, obscenity and child pornography are not protected as free speech. But as distasteful and offensive as some of Charlie Hebdo's work seemed to be, as risky as it was for them to publish that work under the threat of a violent response from extremist Muslims, one has to respect their willingness to exercise their basic rights of free speech and freedom of the press.
I first heard of Charlie Hebdo a few years ago when their offices were firebombed. At that time they were publishing an issue that showed Muhammad on its cover. The editors of Charlie Hebdo were fully aware of one of the basic tenets of Islam, aniconism, the prohibition of presenting an image of Muhammad. A few years earlier a Danish magazine had sparked violent protests around the world when it published a series of cartoons depicting Muhammad and criticizing fundamentalist Islam.
Today, these writers are criticizing the masses for "standing with Charlie," for supporting everything ever printed in Charlie Hebdo, no matter its creativity, accuracy or intent. I think these writers are missing the point. Which is truly unfortunate because this point is the entire raison d'être of free speech. The point is to support free speech, whether you agree with what's being said, whether you agree with the speaker's ideologies, whether you agree with their attitude, their choice of words, their tone. The point is to respect EVERY speaker's (or cartoonist, or filmmaker, or artist) right to speak freely. That is a responsibility one must accept if one is to enjoy and exercise one's own right of freedom to speak openly and honestly without the fear of penalty or suppression. That is, of course, a simplistic legal definition of free speech. The official protections afforded by the state allow a good deal of leeway in the types of speech that are protected. Yet even then there are restrictions, exceptions made to protect the lives of others. Certain forms of hate speech are prohibited. In some countries it is illegal to criticize government or religious leaders. But this is not so in most democratic countries. And this is why controversy swirled around Charlie Hebdo. It seems they were on a mission to see how far they could overstep a line in the sands of the Middle East, purposely offending Muslims, especially extreme fundamentalist Muslims, by exploiting the taboo of presenting an image of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, in any graphic form. By frequently including editorial caricatures of Muhammad, even using those images as the magazine's covers, they pushed and pushed at the deeply held Muslim beliefs until, in 2011, Muslim terrorists pushed back, fire-bombing the Paris offices of Charlie Hedbo. The magazine's owners and staff vowed to regroup, to not be cowered by threats of violence. One of the owner/cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier, known to most as Charb, iterated his intent to continue exercising his right to criticize extremist Islamic fundamentalists through his cartooning. "i'd rather die standing than live on my knees." Such is how Charb saw not only his right but his responsibility to pursue his passion (some may describe it as obsession) for free speech and to expose terrorists even as he lived under police protection because of constant threats on his life.
And so the irony is that Charb's death came just as Charlie Hebdo was putting together its next issue. Charb and the other editors/owners, cartoonists and staff members were massacred as they were "standing" for their rights. They refused to kowtow to the attempts of terrorists to silence them. They DIED because they believed in free speech. They WILLINGLY risked their lives by exercising that right. And so millions of us around the world have shown support and respect for their sacrifice. We are not championing the cartoons. The mere thought that that is the reason for a world-wide outpouring of support is offensive. No, what is being supported is a centuries-old tradition of men and women who so strongly believe in human rights that they are willing to put their lives on the line to protect those rights.