Of cartoonists and extremists

Jan. 7 would have been just another typical production day at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, but for the shooting by two gunmen of 10 staff and two police officers.

Graphic by Charlie Hebdo
Graphic by Charlie Hebdo

Jan. 7 would have been just another typical production day at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, but for the shooting by two gunmen of 10 staff and two police officers.

Since its founding in 1970, Charlie Hebdo has been known for its provocative satirical cartoons and essays.

It has lampooned politicians, writers, artists, musicians and religion in a manner typical of French satirical culture, rooted in the works of earlier

French satirists including Voltaire, Rabelaiss, Bussy-Rabutin, Beaumarchais and Chamfort.

Satire, as many may know, is intended to point readers’ attention to the most ridiculous aspects of a phenomenon in ways that are just as comedic as they are serious.

In the Western world especially, it has become an idealistic truism that the ability to speak as one wishes, and hence the ability of the satirist to satirize, is protected as a freedom under law. People have a right to speak as they wish about anything, so long as that speech does not, thereafter, infringe upon the rights, or cause the implicit or explicit subjugation and disparagement, of another.

Keeping this fundamentality in mind I proceed, as I must, with the denunciation of any act of violence, especially those — like the aforementioned incident or last week’s murder by Boko Haram of 2000 Nigerians — that pretend to be in the name of a rational ideology, but end up being senseless and nefarious to all but the perpetrators.

Real lives have been lost and at this moment, it would be crass not to sympathize with the victims simply because of the nature of their satire.

They have families and friends, most of whom are currently feeling the insurmountable pain of loss; a pain that many — even those who have lost a great deal — can’t possibly understand fully.

Nevertheless, a conversation must be had about the very nature of this freedom to satirize. To what extent should we make fun of certain things?

When should we draw the line? Are there ideas that are so sacred that they ought not to be made fun of? These are some of the questions that have lingered on since Jan. 7. On some days, the answers seem rather clear; but on other days, they remain ambiguous and elusive.

Moreover, as much as I’ve tried to look at the massacre as it is without factoring in the magazine, I’ve been unable to stop myself from thinking about the inappropriate and incendiary nature of its content.

What the Charlie Hebdo shooters have achieved, really, is the deification of an exhibitionistic publication — one not deserving of worship.

This point becomes clear in the resurfacing of several of the magazine’s racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic cartoons by people who are rightfully in solidarity with the victims and in support of the freedom of speech, but who, in their grief and anger, may have planted the seeds from which a tree of further racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia will grow.

This, for me, is almost as grave a problem for modern society as the plague of terrorism. One need not look further than the foreign policy mishaps of America in the last two decades and France’s intolerant attitudes towards Muslim and African aliens to understand this.

With that said, if I’m ever required to fight for my freedom to speak as I wish, or my neighbour’s freedom to do the same, I will do so valiantly.

However, I will also criticize unreserved and classless manifestations of this fundamental freedom to an extent that, although not leading to violence, will hopefully deter the speechmaker.

It is impossible for me to consume cartoons of an African politician depicted as a big-lipped monkey, or one of Prophet Mohammed that disregards the Muslim tradition of aniconism or even one of a Jewish rabbi counting stacks of money, without feeling an annoyance that prompts me to question the intentions of the cartoonists. Are they simply satirizing, or are they propagating a tradition of intolerance towards others? Perhaps they are doing both, but even this is unlikely. When satire is good, it is great; otherwise it ends up being, like many of Charlie’s cartoons, cheap and gadfly-esque. As Teju Cole put it in Unmournable Bodies, “it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting the content of that speech. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal.”

I conclude on this note, hoping that perhaps the conversation on this matter will be filled with tolerance rather than intolerance, compassion rather than indifference; but most of all, with the ability of everyone, from the criticizer to the criticized, to show respect for each other — at least as much respect as they would like in return.

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