Note: This is about the Charlie Hebdo story. My opinions here might not be the same as yours. If you don’t want to read about politics, then don’t read this journal.
I want to share my opinion on the topic of the terrorist attack in Paris. I’ve been waiting with it a few days to see how things unfold, and well, here goes.
So, first, let’s get the obvious out of the way. It’s horrible. Of course it’s a terrible tragedy, and there is no bright side to this senseless loss of life. However, I don’t feel the need to say more about that part. It’s obvious, and for a random disconnected person like myself to go on about it is pointless. Murder is bad. No debate there. I think it’s disingenuous to say you’re “grieving” if you didn’t actually know the victims. Yes, I could plaster “Je Suis Charlie” all over the Internet, but I don’t feel the need to show off. Being against murder isn’t really the daring political statement people pretend it is. Those in the “Je Suis Charlie” movement who are sincere about it seem to be more about showing solidarity and upholding Freedom of Speech. Which is where this gets interesting.
I am a bit concerned that this could be one of the major references when discussing Freedom of Speech. Certainly, in the present day, this is an issue of “freedom vs terrorism.” If this is what people will remember historically, it will be boiled down further into something like “religion is evil” or “western = good; Islamic = bad,” or, perhaps worst of all, this will perpetuate the misunderstanding that Freedom of Speech is a trump card. Yes, you have Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Speech refers to what the GOVERNMENT allows their people to do. Random terrorists are not the government. Also, I am wary of anyone who gets behind Freedom of Speech as a cause. Not that it’s not a worthy cause, in and of itself, but I have only ever seen it cited by trolls and other rabble rousers as an excuse to make threats or racist statements or something of that ilk. I have also seen and heard people actually being silenced by governing bodies, and where are the Freedom of Speech supporters then? They’re nowhere. Judging by their actions, the “Freedom of Speech” group doesn’t really care about those who are truly oppressed and disenfranchised. They care about access to porn and having swearing on TV and getting away with making death/rape threats to people they don’t like. So, I’m a bit worried about - hey, who’s driving this thing? I’m worried that “freedom” will basically come down to “I can be disrespectful toward other cultures if I feel like it.” That is not what Freedom of Speech means, and that is not what the concept is for.
Here’s the thing. Of course I support Freedom of Speech. However, I only support it for what it actually means - you can voice your political opinions, you can access whatever information you need, and you can openly present yourself as a supporter or member of whatever movement or culture you want. THAT’S what that means. In practice, I have never seen anyone actually fighting for Freedom of Speech, in terms of what it actually is. The “freedom” to spread misinformation is libel, slander, or, um...lying. The “freedom” to make threats is not you protecting your freedom and security; it’s you taking away someone else’s. Freedom does not mean a lack of accountability, and I’m worried that the tragedy in Paris is going to sharpen the divide in some social justice groups. I am genuinely concerned that the “lesson” that some people are going to get from this is to be irreverent for its own sake, as loudly as possible, and that is somehow going to create a better world.
But it’s not. In fact, I’m quite sure it will do the opposite. Just hear me out. This particular attack happened, supposedly, because Charlie Hebdo published an editorial cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Actually, it happened because the perpetrators grew up rather unglued, got some bad messages, were further radicalized, and probably would have gone on a murdering spree somewhere anyway regardless of the trigger. But let’s go back to the Mohamed thing for a second. In Islam (as far as I know), it is completely against the rules to depict this person. So... why did Charlie Hebdo do that? I’m not saying they need to censor themselves. I’m just saying, it wouldn’t have been a big deal for them to NOT draw him, and that might have been the better decision. Not out of fear, but out of respect. If you don’t follow the rules of that religion, or even any religion, that’s okay. You don’t have to. We can all enjoy the freedom that there is no religion being forced upon us. The thing is, secularism and humanism (and, depending on the school of thought, atheism as well), all rely on people just getting along. If you think we don’t need God or a book of rules to be good people, you’re right, but then you also need to uphold that. That means respecting that something might be really hurtful to someone else, and not needlessly crossing that line. If you truly believe in freedom, then that also means freedom of religion (no, you are not bound to other people’s religions; just hear me out). When people are free to live life as they choose, then you get a society with religious and political diversity, a.k.a. multiculturalism. Sometimes, people talk about multiculturalism like it’s an extra thing you have to add, but actually, it’s the natural result of freedom. It is only in oppressed societies that everyone is forced to live the same way and purport to believe the same things. So, part of this freedom and democracy we’re striving for is that we’re going to have multiculturalism. That means there will be differences in cultural values and customs.
Maybe to you, an editorial cartoon depicting someone who isn’t supposed to be drawn is just a bunch of ink on a page, but at the same time, you KNOW it’s really hurtful to someone else. That’s what I’m getting at here. I’m not saying this is about respecting prophets or a god you may or may not believe in. I’m saying, it is an undeniable fact that there are PEOPLE around you who have beliefs that differ from your own, and even in a secular society, you need to respect THEM. That’s what this is about. People.
I mean, what’s to stop anyone from burning a bible or a flag? It’s just a bunch of paper or cloth. What’s to stop anyone from shouting racial slurs? It’s just a sound. And yet, it’s more than that. Yes, the meanings of things are arbitrary, and it’s good to stay objective and know where cultural conventions come from. However, I firmly believe it comes down to this: if you KNOW something you might do is going to hurt your fellow human being, you need to think twice before doing it. That isn’t censorship. That isn’t oppression. That’s being a decent human being, which is something you need to do if you expect a multicultural, freedom-based society to function.
See, the question regarding Freedom of Speech is not “will I get in trouble for saying this?” or “can I get away with saying this?” but rather, “Why am I saying this?” That is, we shouldn’t do things for the sake of stirring up controversy, nor be silenced by the fear of controversy. We should be guided by speaking the truth and saying what needs to be said. This is especially important for journalists, who inform everyone else, but in the era of the Internet and self-proclaimed citizen journalists, it’s something we all need to be careful with. I had some bad experiences with such issues this past summer. I’m Jewish and I live in a rather Jewish neighbourhood. Online citizen journalists kept stoking netizens’ hatred of Israel until it manifested in the form of my neighbourhood being vandalized and worse. Supposedly, similar things happened in other Jewish communities, at least around North America. It was a case of self-righteous “freedom fighters” making snarky jokes and spreading misleading information, until some do-gooder(s) took it upon themselves to do some damage. As part of the affected group, I couldn’t make myself heard at the time. Once people have painted you as the enemy, they tend not to listen to what you have to say. They also tend to assume that your arguments, no matter how logical and factual, have some kind of ulterior motive, or that you’re being “overly emotional.” Well, guess what. I’m not Muslim, so the “affected” excuse isn’t going to work to discredit me on this one. Which is why I’m writing this - so that someone might read it before getting the wrong idea about a group of people that the rest of the world seems to really, really, really not like.
You know, I can’t help but wonder, why were the people at Charlie Hebdo drawing Mohammed anyway? I mean, this is a magazine that does political commentary, right? So, what are they saying regarding a figure who basically represents all of Islam? I mean, if they were making fun of Bin Laden or Amadinejad or someone like that, then fine. Those are specific individuals, and, yeah, they’re terrorists. We SHOULD be hating on them. But, once again, as a journalist, you can’t be lazy with your facts. It doesn’t matter if they’re a comedy magazine. They need to be careful with the broad strokes. Islam =/= terrorism. Even if you’re joking, people absorb information from their entertainment as well. You don’t want to know what I’ve had to put up with due to “South Park.”
TO BE CLEAR: I’m NOT saying the victims of the shooting deserved what happened, not for a second. Of course it was a horrible tragedy. I’m just concerned about how it’s being reported as though it’s “freedom of speech vs terrorists,” kind of implying that if you’re offended by your religion being disrespected, then you’re likely to go on a killing spree. This is not a reference to the actual shooters; I’m talking about everyone else in that faith being painted with the same brush. I’m also concerned about the false dichotomy being reinforced that you can either be a logical, freedom-loving person OR you can have religious beliefs. Folks, it’s not mutually exclusive. In fact, to truly have freedom in society, there will be Freedom of Speech AND peaceful, respectful diversity. Not always an easy balancing act, but it’s something to strive for, isn’t it?
Of course Freedom of Speech is important, but I’m worried that THIS is going to be held up as the golden example, when it is murky at best. Actually, it has nothing to do with Freedom of Speech, seeing as the shooters weren’t from the government. But, putting that aside for a moment... would it really have been censorship if someone at the magazine had decided not to include drawings of Mohammed? I’m not asking this rhetorically; I’m curious. What were they trying to say with that editorial cartoon? I mean, if you were making an editorial cartoon about the Church, you’d draw the Pope or a priest, right? You wouldn’t draw Jesus. Not that it’s the same thing exactly, because there’s no taboo against drawing Jesus. My point is this: If, for whatever reason, someone had to criticize a whole religion, then, yeah, they have the freedom to do that. Technically, they have that right. This wasn’t about “rights and freedoms,” so why is it being branded as such? France is not an Islamic theocracy. Drawing Mohammed isn’t against the law. I’m just not sure what called for it in this situation. If you have something important to say, then you have the freedom to say it. However, if you’re just trying to be controversial, then all you’ve basically done is draw attention to yourself in a childish way and hurt a lot of people in the process. Technically, you have the freedom to do so. It’s just stupid, irresponsible, and counter-productive when it comes to building a better world. Such an action does NOT support freedom. It just cheapens the idea of freedom and injects it with hostility toward those who do not share your lack of (or differing) religious beliefs.
Here’s one little story that might better explain what I mean here. Remember a few years ago, Daniel Tosh encouraged his audience to rape one of the audience members? Immediately after reading that story, I went on Twitter, and someone had posted a picture of Stephen Fry with his quote about not caring if someone’s offended. “Offended” had become this big accusation, like if I do something mean to you and you take it badly, that’s your fault, not mine. For a society that claims to care about speech, we don’t seem to put much thought into our words, nor take responsibility afterward. Anyway, after a moment, I realized the Stephen Fry quote was probably regarding someone being offended that he’s gay, or he’s an atheist, or something else he might get nagged about but doesn’t need to apologize for. What mattered there was the context. Are we talking about something that needs to be apologized for? In the case of going out of your way, for no reason, to insult your fellow human being - that’s a mistake that needs to be apologized for. Once again, I want to make it clear that I’m NOT saying the shooting was deserved. IT WAS NOT DESERVED, NOR DID I EVER SAY THAT. I’m saying, I think it’s problematic that this issue is being played up as freedom fighting. Like, we SHOULD be as disrespectful as possible so as to keep Freedom of Speech fresh or something. That’s wrong. This is two separate issues. Charlie Hebdo was inappropriate in making some jokes that crossed the line. Yeah, that’s kind of their “thing,” but it’s inappropriate and needlessly hurtful. The other issue was the shooting, which is obviously inexcusable, and for obvious reasons it overshadowed the former issue. The big mistake we’re making here is comparing these two separate issues as though it’s one versus the other. Je suis l’amie de Charlie, mais je ne suis pas Charlie.
I think it’s great that we live in such a free society, but one of the things that keeps it free is that people can, by and large, trust and respect each other. We don’t need to be bogged down by numerous forms of security and divisions. We can happily live in multicultural communities together because we know how to interact with each other AS HUMANS. That is, we’re free to have culture because we know how to transcend it. When someone goes out of their way to be offensive for the sake of being offensive, that is not upholding security, culture, or freedom. That is undermining it.
I hope that the horrible occurrence in Paris will not be remembered as a Freedom of Speech issue. These shootings were a random act of senseless violence, and it is almost a form of victim blaming to imply it was “triggered” by the publication of those cartoons. Terrorism is not, in any sense, a form of justice - and therefore it would be a mistake to interpret it as cause-and-effect. What we can learn from this is not tied to any political philosophy, because one cannot make sense of acts that have already left the realm of reason. There is no pattern of reasoning that could possibly justify these shootings. By the same token, there is no pattern of reasoning that supports framing this issue as something it’s not. For those of us who truly care about Freedom of Speech, surely, we value the power of telling the truth. Therefore, we must see things and speak of things as they are.