Patrick DeCarlo turns to history to explain why he supports freedom of speech for ‘Charlie Hebdo’ but not their speech itself.
Writing an editorial such as this requires the skill of a tightrope walker; the simple, seemingly thoughtless act of writing now requires balance, nuance, and attention just as the stuntman suspended over a cityscape. The public response to the Charlie Hebdo terror attack, however, appears to be more instinctual, more gut-level, and I fear that if we don’t pay special attention as does the tightrope walker we may tumble with unintended consequences if we continue to walk as if we’re simply on a sidewalk.
Hours after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, well-meaning clarion calls against terrorism, as well as support for the victims and the foundation of free expression went viral with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, translating to “I am Charlie.” In cities across the world, people gathered en masse in defiance of terrorism’s chilling effect on public assembly.
Parallels can be drawn to the visceral reaction of American public support to see James Franco and Seth Rogan’s movie, The Interview, following the threat of September 11 style terrorist attacks.
For once, the American people and much of the free world seem united. How dare any entity, foreign or domestic, determine what I can say, write, direct, or view in the marketplace of ideas?
Franco, Rogan, and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo’s artistic expression may have been crass and controversial to some, but public response summoned the spirit of the great French satirist, Voltaire, whose Enlightenment ideals influenced America’s founders with the quote, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
And I can get behind that clarion call. Part of the beauty of the marketplace of ideas is that the public responds to the crass and controversial in such varied ways that our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors shift in exciting, dynamic directions as the plurality of our democracy become known and this should be free of coercive violence.
Part of that beauty of the marketplace of ideas is also the ability to condemn terrorism while critiquing the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, in particular the depiction of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, within the context of French society. And it is with that that I contend you may want to rethink saying #JeSuisCharlie.
In these cartoons, the sacred figure Muhammad is denigrated to the racist, western trope of the Arab in the bazaar—he is a long-nosed brown man. The dark, long-nosed Middle Easterner is eerily similar to constructions of Jews in pre-World War II European propaganda. Moreover, he inhabits the western view of Islam as patently authoritarian, violent and intolerant of speech; in one cartoon he says, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”
In a more telling cartoon featuring a Muslim and a Jew, the speech bubble says, “Must not mock” as it’s flanked by the title the “Untouchables 2.” This presupposes that in France Muslims and Jews hold hegemonic, structural power in which they have the authority to create a chilling effect on expression.
Rather, the opposite is the case.
France, out of step with the Enlightenment ideals of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, banned religious face coverings such as the burqa. This masqueraded in France as a concern with security in the face of terrorism; however, the changing demographics of France sees the debate as inhabiting xenophobic leanings and misplaced concern over the subjugation of women. Debating whether the burqa subjugates women in France ironically did not appear next to proposed bans on Louis Vuitton high heels—it appears that the French are comfortable with one argument for the objectification of women and not another; it also appears they are comfortable with government intervention against the objection of women for one argument over another.
Five years prior to the ban, the 2005 French riots saw mostly alienated Muslim youth take to the streets in face of lack of employment opportunities and structural discrimination.
France today still polls with xenophobic leanings, where 63% of people do not think Islam is in step with French values.
These cartoons operate in this context of Muslim experience. Satire is most effective when it punches up towards power. We can think of Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal in which the heartlessness of the English colonizers is exposed through hyperbole as they suggest literally eating the colonized children of Ireland as a fix for poverty. In the case of Charlie Hebdo we see the satirical outfit punching down at a frequent target of establishment France, a target that feels historically alienated, denigrated, and discriminated against.
Arguments exist in which Charlie Hebdo is equal opportunity in its critique, as they even satirize Christians. Christians, however, are not systematically discriminated against in the way that Muslims and immigrants in France are, both through law and social perception.
Je suis Charlie? I’m not, no. I think the publication promotes xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. But I do believe that they should be free to be the Charlie they are and others can associate with their expression if they choose.
But I’m reminded of the meme of Morpheus from The Matrix where he asks, “What if I told you …” and then belittles your behavior.
What if I told you that you could condemn terrorism, support freedom of speech, and criticize racist schlock posing as satire?