Charlie Hebdo is a hardcore left-wing magazine. Most of its articles deal with issues like the economy, social justice, culture, politics and so forth. Charlie has even raised its voice against the discrimination that Muslims experience in France. The problem is that several of its articles and cartoons have involved a very brutal form of satirical humor that has been extremely offensive to many groups, not only Muslims. Consider the following cartoon that was published by Charlie in 2012 regarding the opposition of Catholics in France to gay marriage, which proclaims that a vocal opponent of gay marriage at the time, Cardinal Vingt-Trois, had three fathers; the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost, which are featured having sexual relations.
There is no doubt that Charlie had a right to publish this cartoon, as well as the cartoons of the prophet Muhamad. The question, however, is whether it was wise. Taking the example of the above cartoon, many Christians are for gay marriage, but a cartoon like the one above offends almost all Christians. Similarly the vast majority of Muslims are against terrorism, but a cartoon ridiculing their most prominent religious figure or their holy book will offend almost all of them. This is my beef with Charlie’s approach, even if they have a right to follow it.
But what to do now when Charlie’s right to free speech has been so brutally repressed? Buy the new issue with yet another Muhamad cartoon in the cover and declare in solidarity “Je suis Charlie”? For reference let’s check some cases closer to home here in the US where free speech was attacked.
The publisher of the pornographic magazine Hustler, Larry Flint, went through several obscenity trials and was shot and paralyzed from the waist down in 1978 by a white supremacist who was angered because Hustler featured an issue of a black man having sex with a white woman. So in support of free speech should we have bought the magazine? In 1987 the artist Andres Serrano took a photograph of a small crucifix immersed in a glass of his own urine (Piss Christ). The photograph went on to cause scandals when it was exhibited at galleries with the artist receiving death threats and losing grants to pursue his work. In support of his free speech should we have bought copies of the photograph and attended his exhibitions? In 1992 the band Body Count put out an album containing a song written by their lead vocalist Ice-T, called “Cop Killer”, which describes in expletive-riddled terms how an individual fed up with police brutality sets out to kill police officers. The backlash against the artist and the record company was so great that the album was reissued with the song removed. To defend free speech should we have bought the original album? My answer to these questions is “No”. You can support free speech without necessarily supporting a specific artist, even when their free speech is under attack.
I believe Charlie Hebdo has its heart in the right place. It addresses valid issues that others may miss or shy from addressing, and it has paid a high price for doing so. In no uncertain way I condemn the despicable killing of its staff, which should not be tolerated or allowed to become a muzzle for free speech. However, I will not be buying the new issue. “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (I am not Charlie). I believe that what they do can be done in a way that generates less heat and more light.
What do you think?
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