Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
Je Suis Charlie? Not So Much
The demonstrations throughout the world in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris are understandable. The crowds chanted “Je suis Charlie!” or “I am Charlie,” in tribute to the cartoon journalists from the humor magazine Charlie Hebdo who were killed in the first attack. The victims of the shootings were assassinated because they regularly lampooned religious leaders. They were not specifically anti-Muslim; they made fun of all religions. This type of provocative humor has a long history in France. The offices of Charlie Hebdo had once before been firebombed by those who objected to the jokes about Islam, which Muslims considered to be blasphemous.
The chant, “Je suis Charlie” was most likely more of a show of support for the rights of journalists to write freely and openly without fear of violence than it was an endorsement of the specific cartoons that engendered such rage. In western nations, we hold the concept of free speech dear. Even though we may abhor a particular message, we will defend the rights of those who wish to express their opinions, however unpopular. The public is, of course, free to accept or reject particular opinions. The theory is we should hear all opinions before we can decide what to accept or reject. I strongly agree with this free speech doctrine and would expect that virtually all readers of this magazine would as well.
I believe the French cartoonists who created cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammad, cartoons intended to deliberately provoke Muslim people, should be legally permitted to publish whatever they wish. However, just because journalists or artists are permitted to publish whatever they wish does not mean they should do so.
The purpose of allowing journalists to publish without restraint has an important function. It allows the venting of diverse opinions, unpopular opinions, and opinions that might motivate people to work in opposition to particular governments or corporations. By limiting free speech, governments try to, and often do, limit the information the people have on which to base their opinions, their votes, their investments, and so on. Repressive regimes typically take over media outlets to limit press freedom immediately upon seizing power.
The Charlie Hebdo situation, in my opinion, is different. I can see no useful purpose in deliberately and crudely insulting someone’s religious faith. I can certainly see journalists criticizing and making fun of the policies and actions of various religions, whether they be cardinals in the Vatican, orthodox Jewish settlers in Palestine, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or the Westboro Baptist Church members who picketed US Veterans’ funerals to support their anti-gay agenda. But portraying Mohammad in crude or sexual ways to make fun of a religion which, in some cases, considers even the depiction of Mohammad to be blasphemous, seems pointless. It accomplishes nothing but further exacerbating the marginalization of Muslims living around the world.
The closest analogous situation I can think of is when Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses in 1988, and the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his assassination. This novel was considered blasphemous by Khomeini for its depiction of Muslims invoking prayers to several pagan goddesses. Rushdie was producing serious literature, however. He most likely understood that some Muslims might take offense, but his work was intended to be read and provoke discussion, not solely to lampoon a faith. Many novels, plays and poems have appropriately challenged religious doctrine and behavior.
People are not likely to reconsider their religious convictions because a cartoonist or comedian makes fun of their beliefs. The only thing such tasteless lampooning does is cause pain and anger, two things we do not need more of in our postmodern world.
Some readers may disagree with me because they would consider this view to be in opposition to unlimited free speech. In reality, many of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo would not be accepted by many US publications because they would constitute hate speech against a particular group. We already have some reasonable limits on saying or publishing anything we choose.
If we are going to protect our precious right to free speech, we should use some discretion when deciding what to say or write.