art, art philosophy, censorship, charlie hebdo, coldbrook studio, editorial cartoon, france, humor, je suis charlie, paris, polemic, political art, politics, radical islam, satire, voltaire, workplace violence
After the brutal attack on the satirists and cartoonists of the French periodical Charlie Hebdo for disrespectful depictions of the prophet Mohamed, the world’s press found itself in a difficult position. If they ran the cartoons as part of their tribute to the fallen, would they open their own offices up the same sort of fatwa that claimed the lives of the French satirists? If they did not publish them, were they subjecting themselves to the very censorship against which their editorials were railing?
Dealing with this conundrum is complicated by another factor: many of the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are truly offensive. Not heretical or racist, although they are often those things, but just plain all-out middle school gross, enough to make even Big Daddy Ed Roth queasy. These cartoons are suitable for the walls of public toilet stalls. They would not be at home on the pages of the New Yorker or The Economist, or even Playboy. Though draped in the raiment of political protest or moral righteousness, their main point often seems to be the shock value itself.
The justification for this particular act of terror was ostensibly the anti-Islamic editorial policies at the magazine. In fact, the misanthropy of Charlie Hebdo is painted with such a broad brush that it transcends anti-Islamism, dissing the world’s three major religions with equal brackishness. Similarly, the magazines vicious mistreatment of blacks, Asians, and Arabs soars past racism into vaulting heights of revolting cynicism. This, of course, is exactly the point.
Without self-censorship there would be no art. There is an old joke about how to carve an elephant from marble: it’s easy—just start with a block of marble, and cut away everything that does not look like an elephant. There is a lot of truth in this simple adage. Though all writers have their own particular processes (George Plimpton’s Paris Review interviews come to mind) They almost always incorporate this feature: a first round of writing is allowed to flow from that creative place that knows no editorial bounds or rules of syntax. (My kids’ elementary school teachers called this the “sloppy copy”; I always liked that term.) This free form piece is then progressively rewritten, fixing p the language and paring away everything that is unnecessary or distracting. Painters and sculptors do something very similar, experimenting with sketches in charcoal or watercolor and making preliminary models of plaster or clay before committing the final work to oils or bronze. Charlie, driven by some sort of creative id, seems to stop at the sloppy copy.
Few challenge the right of an organization to limit to its own speech by censoring the speech of its members on its behalf. It is well known that television networks do not permit certain words to be spoken on the air, as the late George Carlin’s popular routine about the seven words you cannot say on TV attests. Certain things cannot be seen on network, either. Consider all the fuss that followed Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”.
When Sony Pictures recently attempted to end an ongoing internet hack by blocking the release of The Interview, a puerile film that had offended the government of North Korea, many questioned the company’s judgment, but few questioned the company’s right to protect itself and the celebrities in its employ by recourse to such corporate censorship.
Censorship imposed by the government is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Knowingly making false statements of fact that may result in harm to others, such as libel or slander, is subject to civil penalty. Threats of violence and treasonous speech are prosecuted as crimes. In the U.S., the public’s desire for even broader powers of censorship is evident in the widespread discomfort in the fact that pornography is often defended on free speech grounds.
Voltaire, (François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778) a master of satire in the Age of Enlightenment, is often credited with crafting the central dogma of free speech: “I disapprove of what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to day it.” In fact, the phrase first appeared in a 20th century biography of Voltaire by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym S.G.Tallentyre. Voltaire himself was the real deal, though. He spent many years in exile from his native France for his polemics, and was even imprisoned in the Bastille, yet he persisted in his brilliant satire. His works are still read today, more than two centuries after his death.
Voltaire understood the irony that differentiates satire from spite: tolerance. “It does not require great art or magnificently trained eloquence,” he wrote, “to prove that Christians should tolerate each other. I, however, am going further: I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?”
Without that soft touch of empathy, polemic is just rock-hard bitterness. It is exactly this offsetting sense of understanding that is often missing from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and Islamic Fundamentalism. Small wonder that when the two collide there is Hell to pay.
United States constitutional case law specifically excludes “fighting words” (“those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” – US Supreme Court, Chaplinski vs New Hampshire) from constitutional free speech protections. In Canada, the principle is black letter law. (“Public incitement of hatred (s. 319. Everyone who, by communicating statements in a public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of [a crime]. s.319, Criminal Code of Canada.) The principle of free speech does not protect you if you are trying to pick a fight. Islamic Fundamentalism picks fights with anyone who is disrespectful of the Prophet. Charlie Hebdo picks fights with everyone.
The briar patch of free speech is a thorny thicket indeed. The issue at Charlie Hebdo, though, is not about free speech, and to focus there is to fall into the terrorists’ trap. It is not about free speech, or the limits of good taste, or Islam. It is about murder.
No, I am not Charlie. I take issue with their politics. I like neither their art nor their attitude–I wish they would just grow up. Still, no one deserves to die over a cartoon. A religion whose faithful believe their god requires them to evangelize with military assault weapons needs to reconnect with the God of Abraham, who does not make such demands.
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Yes, I stand with Charlie at the ramparts of what is right, speaking out against the evil that flooded onto their offices that dreadful day. I believe that they had a right to do what they were doing, even as I believe that a sense of either tolerance or good taste ought to have been sufficient reason for their not doing it.
I believe that the men and women of Charlie, just like the rest of us, have the right to know that at any moment a gang of angry thugs and ruffians will not burst through the doors with automatic weapons, call out our names, and brutally cut us down. I do not believe any cartoon published anywhere in the world at any time, no matter how dismal or offensive, has justified cold-blooded murder. Ever.