I May Not Like Charlie, But I Stand With Him

The responses to the tragedies in France this week have been interesting and thought-provoking.

Understandably, journalists – and in particular, satirical journalists – everywhere have spoken out about the defense of freedom of speech.  Civic leaders have called for calm and urged people not to react negatively against the Muslim community.  Citizens have questioned their security and the ability of security services to protect them.  Governments have promised to do more (more!).

But it’s the freedom of speech part that has me most interested, and what makes this week’s attack different from other recent attacks.  (It made me very sad that there actually *are* numerous recent attacks to compare this one to… but I digress).

I will start by saying that many of the satirical cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo have been distasteful to me.  I usually don’t find them funny, or ironic, or witty; I find that they too often resort to the lowest common denominator of grotesqueness to make their point.  In my opinion, they’re not clever.

Damnit.  I actually kind of like this one.
Damnit. I actually kind of like this one.

In Ottawa Ontario this week, an Imam called for changes to the law to make it illegal to publish such satirical cartoons about religious figures, calling them “offensive”.  He compared it to the backlash against Holocaust deniers.  I empathize with his feelings, but I disagree with him wholeheartedly.

Pure-hearted Muslims are rightly offended by some of the grotesque satirical cartoons published in recent years about their prophet.  Just as pure-hearted Catholics are justifiably offended by similar cartoons depicting sex-abusing priests.  Just as any group is understandably upset about anything that deliberately bastardizes a figure they hold dear or reverent.

I understand and empathize with all these feelings.  I can’t fault people for feeling upset or put-off or angry, and in fact it is their right to feel as they do and to express those feelings.  Satirizing a group or religion or culture may make a point about that group, but it generally is like using a blunt instrument to make a precision cut.  You quite often miss the finer complexities of the matter.

But making it illegal to draw offensive cartoons is not in the public interest.  It would require the justice system to apply an objective test to a subjective issue, and one which resides on a very slippery slope indeed.  While few would argue that some of the cartoons in question would reasonably be offensive to some people (although there’s not really much actual harm in that), there are many that sit much more comfortably closer to a middle ground where offense is less obvious.  And of course, there are those which bluntly and cleverly push back against oppressive or unjust government or societal forces; and such is the resistance that so often leads to positive evolution and change.  This bunch doesn’t fit nicely into any one mold, which is actually the whole point.

So no, I don’t think it should be illegal to publish such cartoons, as distasteful or ineffective as I may personally find them.  The same freedom which lets me hit the publish button on this opinion piece also applies to the satirists and the cartoonists and the journalists and the politicians and the bloggers and the editorialists with whom I may agree or disagree.

The point is to realize — it’s actually not all about me.  As an only child, I may find this hard to accept but alas, it’s true.  It’s not about what I, personally, find offensive or acceptable.  I have the freedom to turn off the computer if I don’t like what I see.  I have to freedom to – gasp – *not* buy the Charlie Hebdo magazine if I don’t like the cartoon on the cover.  Not giving them my money or my clicks expresses my displeasure in a very profound way.  My right to look away balances their right to publish what they please.

The other point, in this discussion about freedom of speech, is to remember that the people who committed these horrific acts don’t actually care about freedom of speech.  They don’t care about your rights balancing their own.  There is no scale of justice here.  There is nothing but their festering, screeching indulgence of their own self-righteousness, their twisted incomprehension of the sanctity of life, and their delusion of their personal version of absolute truth.  One’s “person” version of absolute truth is such an oxymoron, no?  A distinction lost on these barbarians.

I think it goes without saying that violence such as we saw this week is never, ever, a justified response to any perceived wrong.  Ironically, and sadly, the perpetrators of these crimes could have used the very freedoms of expression that they attempted to snuff out to express their outrage and their disagreement and their worldviews, and they might have actually had a real audience for their feelings.

Instead they ended up dead.  And the words and images they tried to kill have multiplied a thousand times over, across the world.  There’s a lesson here, somewhere.

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