Here on SAB we focus on North Dakota, and with our legislature beginning its 2015 session this week that means we’re pretty busy these days. But I wanted to take a time out from all that to acknowledge what happened in France today.
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the offices of newspaper Charlie Hebdo were attacked today by Islamic extremists shouting “allahu akbar.”
They reportedly killed 11 people, including editor Stéphane Charbonnier seemed almost prescient about what was to come in 2012.
“We didn’t feel like we could kill somebody with a pen,” he told Le Monde (translated) explaining why he continued to publish provocative comics. “This may sound pompous, but I prefer to die standing up than live on my knees.”
I feel like the western world’s shifting attitudes on free speech, away from the idea that it should be free and toward the idea that provocative speech ought to be silenced or at least restrained, has in some part invited this.
When the U.S. embassy in Cairo was attacked on September 9th, 2012 by demonstrators some say were reacting to a provocative YouTube video about Islam, the U.S. State Department sent out this message:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.
During his 2012 address to the United Nations, President Barack Obama said, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” He also said “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence,” but that was at best a mixed message.
This attitude wasn’t unique to the Obama administration. Even President George W. Bush, who was in office for the most horrendous act of terrorism against the American people in history, was guilty of the same sort of blather. “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief,” his administration announced in 2006 in the wake of international controversy over Danish cartoons.
That’s wrong. As far as the state is concerned, all of those images are acceptable. Or should be.
Which brings me back to Charlie Hebdo. I’ve seen some dismissing the paper as being needlessly provocative, but that’s unfair. What I saw the paper engaged in was smart and courageous skewering of those badly in need of it.
The headline says, “Love is stronger than hate.”
The image depicts Mohammed kissing the editor.
It’s provocative. It’s also brilliant. And incredibly brave.
The newspaper also defended itself, successfully, after being charged with offensive speech winning the right to keep publishing its provocative cartoons skewering Islam and pretty much every other institution you can think of.
Like Christianity, for instance. The newspaper was an equal opportunity offender (see a Buzzfeed list of the newspapers more infamous covers here).
You could say that Charlie Hebdo is a crass and juvenile publication, but so what? That’s a matter of taste. The cost of living in a free society is tolerating things that insult you or make you angry.
We’re losing sight of that in a haze of movements and laws which seek to criminalize or restrict activities which are provocative.
I’m no stranger to this sort of thing. While I would never place myself on the level of the folks at Charlie Hebdo, as a professional publisher of provocative viewpoints I’ve had my share of threats. My wife and I lived through death threats several years ago after I was banished from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation for a magazine column. Back before I was able to write full time I had day jobs, and a sometimes people upset with my writing would threaten to try and get me fired.
A couple of them even followed through, though thankfully nothing ever came of it.
We sometimes take it for granted, especially in this digital age where so many of us hold forth on social media about whatever is on our minds at the moment, but free speech can be hard sometimes. Saying something that upsets people isn’t easy. It gets less easy when those people show a willingness to resort to violence to silence you.
Which is why it’s important to stand up for free speech when it’s threatened.
I can’t say that I agreed with everything Charlie Hebdo had to say about Islam, but I do want to stand up and acknowledge their right to free speech. I want to recognize their courage in sticking to their guns in the face of public outcry, legal action, and ultimately violence.
“Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” has become a rallying cry for those who rallying to the paper’s support. I’m not sure that I am Charlie – I’m not sure I could ever be that brave – but I’ll say it anyway.
Je suis Charlie.
Update: The Associated Press will not publish any images of Mohammed from Charlie Hebdo, but they’d be happy to sell you a print of Piss Christ.