Je Suis Charlie: A Life and Death Fight for the Freedom of Expression
The tragic, senseless killing of 12 members of the satirical French newspaper ‘Charlie Hebdo‘ in Paris last week is by far the biggest story of 2015 so far. Muslim terrorists, claiming to be part of the al qaeda terrorist network, decided that the paper’s satirical cartoons were too much to take, and massacred 17 people to avenge Allah. They KILLED people. In cold blood. To get revenge. For a CARTOON. In 2015. Amazing.
First things first: If your religious beliefs are so aggrieved by some satirical cartoons that you feel the need to take human lives over them, your faith is either incredibly, incredibly weak, or you’ve become so deranged that you are no longer acting on behalf of said religion.
There’s been enough written in the news media in the last week about these tragic events in France, and about the ramifications, so I won’t go into them here. We all know what happened. What concerns me is the chilling effect such violent acts have on the freedom of expression. It scares me, to be honest.
Starting with last years’ hacking of Sony Pictures by North Korea over their film The Interview(more outrage over satire,and a very funny movie by the way) and continuing with the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it seems that what once was taken for granted, an artists’ right to express themselves however they see fit, is under fire. Literally. And that can’t be allowed to happen.
Too quickly, the debate over the freedom of expression, or speech, or the press, becomes about a particular offending item. In this case, Charlie Hebdo‘s tendency to publish cartoons that lampoon, or outright blaspheme, religious and political leaders. However, the freedom to express oneself without having to worry about censorship or outright murder demands that we examine the concept in the abstract. This isn’t about the content of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or comedies about North Korea, or anything else. It’s about freedom.
For most of human history, we had no freedom to express ourselves in any way. Anything that was deemed unacceptable or offensive to the powers that be was simply not tolerated, and offenders were dealt with harshly. It wasn’t until the people took the power into their own hands, and died by the thousands and millions for the right to do so, that these freedoms were even possible. Can you imagine a world where we couldn’t say anything derogatory about our leaders, our politicians, our religions? I can’t, but it seems that there are many in the world today that can, and are ready to fight for their right to suppress and oppress. If we wish to preserve these precious freedoms, we’ve got to stand up and be ready to fight back.
Here are the facts: We live in a big, bad world. We live in a world increasingly connected digitally via the internet, a world where access to virtually anything is just a few clicks away. And there are a lot of differing opinions on an infinite number of topics out there in that big bad digital world. There are things you will be offended by; things you don’t want to see, or hear, or read. There’s never been a time where so much information, so many opinions, so many images and videos, have been so easily accessible to so many. And, it seems, some people, governments or groups are increasingly having a difficult time dealing with it. Saudi Arabia lashes a young man for speaking out against the government on his blog; ISIS publicly flogs a man in Syria for looking at pornography; China heavily censors the internet for the benefit of its billion citizens; North Korea simply doesn’t tolerate ANYTHING; and in France citizens are gunned down in cold blood because of cartoons. These events, and too many others, are what a world without the freedom of expression looks like.
Now, until last week, I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo, a small satirical French newspaper. I’m willing to bet nobody reading this had heard of them, either. Thanks to the terrorists, we all know now. Did they help their cause? Did their violent reactions to some silly cartoons that their overly-sensitive religious beliefs couldn’t tolerate do anything to make the cartoons go away? Nope. Not even close. The world has shown, thankfully, that the right to express oneself freely is not going anywhere. I understand how somebody who is Muslim, or Jewish, or Catholic, might take offense at some of the Charlie cartoons (they equal-opportunity offenders), but you know what? Their right to publish them is more important than whether or not they hurt somebody’s feelings.
There are many media outlets here in the U.S. that have chosen to not publish images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that their creators lost their lives over for fear of offending anyone’s religious beliefs. Again, if a cartoon shakes your faith so easily, maybe it’s time to reexamine that faith. I understand the media’s fears, for they are (mostly) for-profit organizations that can’t afford to turn anybody off, which leads to bland, inoffensive, lowest-common denominator content (a subject for another time.) But I also think the decision not to show the images that are at the very center of such a huge news subject is rather chicken-shit. We’re all adults, aren’t we? Can’t we decide for ourselves if an image is offensive or not? And if we do deem an image to be offensive, can’t we just shake our head and move on? Why are we so oversensitive, and so easily offended?
I don’t have such rigid standards; I don’t have a bottom line to protect, so there’s the current cover of Charlie Hebdo right up there at the top of this article. Here’s some more right here. Enjoy them, or be offended by them. I honestly don’t care; all I care about is the right to show them. I revel in the fact that I am free to post them.
And that is the point of all this rambling: The right, the absolute RIGHT, to express oneself however one sees fit, has to be defended. The millions in the streets of Paris, the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo, everybody who paid to see The Interview, everybody who bought the newest issue of Charlie, agree.
The freedom of expression is critical to the open and free flow of ideas, but it must include the freedom to offend. The freedom to blaspheme. The freedom to speak to power. To be controversial and provocative. The right to publish potentially offensive or critical cartoons; the right to call Congress a bunch of corrupt, soulless jackwads; the right to say ‘Shit Fuck Fart’ if the mood hits. It is times like these, when something does cause an uproar, that we need to embrace and celebrate our freedom of expression, not run away and cower in fear. Much respect goes to Charlie Hebdo, who in the wake of a calamitous, tragic event last week could have closed up shop and disappeared, chose instead to fight through the tears and continue. Their initial run of a million copies (their normal circulation is around 60,000) sold out before dawn today in Paris, with plans to publish millions more, thanks to sympathetic organizations like Google and Le Monde. (Read about the issue in English HERE.) So again, did these gutless terrorists succeed? They killed some talented people who will be mourned, but a thousand more will rise up to take their place. Millions around the world have seen these cartoons who otherwise never, ever would have. If you’re an anti-freedom, murdering terrorist, I’d call that a Fail of epic proportions. And that’s a good thing.
So I beg of you: Read banned books. Look at art that makes you squirm. See controversial films. Be offended. Don’t be afraid. Better yet: Make your own statement. Be OFFENSIVE. But be tolerant of, and always be ready to fight for, the rights of others to do the same. Peace.