On Wednesday January 7th 2015 two masked men armed with AK-47’s killed 10 staff members and 2 police officers at the Paris offices of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. The paper had depicted images of the prophet Mohammad, which the gunmen found offensive. After news of the massacre hit the press, People flooded the streets of Paris with signs of Je Suis Charlie, or “I am Charlie,” in support of the slain cartoonists.
Then of course, a backlash began, at least on the internet. and social media. Many of my well-meaning friends began to re-post blogs and rants stridently attacking the character and political motivations of the slain cartoonists. Their evidence was cherry-picked cartoons without English translations, or any greater context.. All of the very vocal Americans critics somehow became experts on French culture overnight. France is not the US, the country has a very different history and the challenges and difficulties in France are not ours. The French have never viewed themselves as a melting pot, and they do not welcome changes in their culture or even their language. Some Muslims in France refuse to assimilate and desperately want preserve their own traditions. So take a proud culture that doesn’t want to change, and then throw in people who also refuse to adapt and you’ve got a recipe for conflict. There’s more to it than that of course, but that’s the seed of a lot of the tension.
None of these American bloggers openly condoned the killings but they certainly showed contempt and hostility for the victims. One vocal critic declared, “Why should we feel sorry for privileged white males who spewed xenophobic, racist, nonsense?” Other critics claimed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist “Depicted of Muslims as hook-nosed stereotypes” I found this unsettling so I did a quick google search of the words Charlie Hebdo. I wanted to see for myself if the paper was as racist and xenophobic as these people were saying it was. I easily found the following images:
I’m not sure but that looks like a circle of Catholic bishops engaging in some type of group sodomy.
The French president surround by a cast of naked characters.
The cartoonists do depict Muslims as racial stereotypes, but the same could be said for these Caucasian men. No one would call these depictions as flattering.
And of course the image that leads this article is
The very white, and very powerful, male president with his dick out. It appears his penis is speaking for him.
The Pope was also a frequent image on many covers, and of course there were also images of Muslims depicted as racial stereotypes. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that the editors poked fun at plenty of other religions, groups and public officials.
Most of the critics denouncing Charlie Hebdo were righteously indignant Americans. None of them mentioned having lived in France, being French themselves or even understanding the French language, yet these highly opinionated voices were suddenly experts on everything Charlie Hebdo. One angry rant of click bait entitled In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo Freedom of Speech does not Equal Freedom from Criticism, even included as evidence of the paper’s bigotry, a cartoon mocking the leader of Isis. The same author cited Gawker as a source, (Gawker isn’t exactly known for being a shining example of journalistic integrity or ethical reporting.) Isis is of course the same radical group that’s known for human right abuses, mass rapes, and beheadings. Isis is so vicious even al-Qaeda has urged them to kill fewer civilians. But I guess to some even the worst radical religious extremists are above mockery.
The same author who seemed completely outraged at the mocking of Isis had no problem getting his point across with words like: fuck, bullshit and labeling nearly everyone who didn’t agree with him as racist. If you dared to repost an offensive cartoon in solidarity with the slain men, then in his opinion you’re a racist. His evidence of rampant racism other than the cartoons taken out of context was the following two quotes the murdered editor Stéphane “Charb ” Charbonnier’:
“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.”
“I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.”
I don’t really see how either quote makes him a racist. As an agnostic myself, I don’t view any religious symbol as sacred, and I don’t know why anyone must be forced to revere a religion they don’t believe in. In his second quote, he’s basically saying that yes he understands Muslims may not like everything they publish, but France, is a country with freedom of speech, not one that is dictated by any one religion. Someone might also point out to the author that Islam is a religion not a race, and there are Asian, Arab, white and black Muslims. But since the word racist packs more a punch than bigot, he and other politically correct bullies love to throw around the R-word.
I’ll openly admit I’m also no expert on Charlie Hebdo. I’d suspect the author of that article was also going off of scant information. He cited Gawker as a source after all. Some of my French friends have claimed Charlie Hebdo’s editors really did lampoon everyone.. I don’t know what to think, but I’m not going to go with a handful of cartoons out of hundreds, an opinion of some friends, or a few cover images as any evidence of anything. If we’re really going to discuss freedom of speech and expression, offensive, even racist or bigoted content is irrelevant.
In this country we have restrictions on some images and speech. We’ve agreed as a society that blatantly lying about someone is a punishable offense. A person can sue another in a court of law for slander and receive millions in compensation. We’re also have penalties and legal recourse in regards to defamation. We’ve also decided that possessing images of children being sexually molested is intolerable under any circumstances. Profanity and nudity are both somewhat limited, yet both are easy to find if one goes looking for them. We have limits on speech that call for acts of violence against others, or acts of treason. It’s illegal to endanger the public safety by screaming “Fire” in a crowded theater, and you aren’t allowed to joke about a bomb in an airport.
Other than those basic limits, people can write and express themselves however they want. Free speech is messy. It sometimes offends or upsets people. In a free society some speech is so horrendous it’s downright hateful. But what is offensive to one person, might be the harsh biting truth to another. If one group starts to dictate what is and is not offensive, then we are allowing one group to decide the actions and behaviors of others. There is plenty in any religious text that could easily be held up as sacred and untouchable, but no religion should force their standards onto the general public.
We also live in a world with plenty of avenues for recourse. A person can combat offensive speech with more speech. They can battle what they see as inappropriate expression with more creative expression. They can refuse to buy papers they don’t want to read, and they can publish their own.
If we want true freedom of expression than absolutely nothing is above mockery or criticism. We cannot cower to any organization or ideology wiling to kill those who generate offensive thoughts and images. A free society allows speech from every direction and viewpoint. The same freedom allows the misguided bloggers to label these victims as racist xenophobes, is the same one that gives me the opportunity to write this blog.
Does it matter if they wrote some racist and even xenophobic material? They still died for their words and expression and that, by the very definition of the word martyr, does make them martyrs for free speech. Because their death was meant to silence us all, we need to speak out even more ferociously in defense of free speech, even when that speech is harsh satire. .
“I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire.
- Charlie Hebdo Gunman Attacks leave 12 Dead (BBC.com)
- Gawker: The Internet Bully (Columbia Journalism Review)
- The Guardian: Show Solidarity for Charlie Hebdo but in your Own Voice (TheGuardian.com)
- The Charlie Hebdo Massacre in Paris – Editorial (NYTimes.com)
- The Editor of Charlie Hebdo was on an al-Qaida Hit List (Slate.com)
- The Proud Provocateurs at the Center of Today’s Paris Terror Attack (Slate.com)
- Charlie Hebdo’s Editor: I would prefer to Die Standing than to Live on my Knees (qz.com)