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In the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, besides the grief, anger and instinctive desire to indicate unequivocal support for the concept of freedom of speech that most of us felt, there were two other more confused memes emerging before the bodies were cold. Good examples of one, which is the “the real story is not the massacre (but) the real story is the possibility of a backlash against Islam” meme, were the NYTimes analysis rushed out in the following day’s paper (very prominent in their e-newsletter although I’m told not so much in the print edition), and a PBS Newshour piece that evening focusing on the persecution of Muslims in France, such as it is (I think Jewish people in France have it a LOT worse, but that doesn’t seem to count nearly as much). I didn’t get to see the whole thing, but what I did see was “Muslim women can’t completely cover their faces” and a Muslim convert who reported being insulted on the streets “twice in the last year, and one woman was actually yelling at me – I called the police but they didn’t do anything”. The horror. Yeah, that’s the story when twelve innocents including two cops (one of whom was Muslim) are lying dead. For sure. I’m not here to argue there are not legitimate issues with how Muslims are treated – and policy issues as to how immigration/integration is being handled, especially in Europe where a major backlash against Muslims is a real danger, but could you wait a day or two before turning on the “societal guilt” lens?
The second big meme in the BUT genre goes like this: “It’s terrible and reprehensible that twelve people were blown away for what they said, BUT...” (these guys were reprehensible, their cartoons were divisive, they were REALLY offensive to Muslims, you have to understand where these killers are coming from, etc., etc). A bunch of columnists have come out with variations along these lines, and they are circulating widely on social media. I would say mainly “liberal” columnists but would be remiss not to acknowledge that Bill Donohue of the Catholic League is on the same page with them with this argument.
In the case of liberals, they are striving for tolerance which sounds good on it’s face. But the real issue here is freedom, and freedom of speech – and there can be no compromise on that. Period. Full stop. Maybe that’s just an American view, but I don’t think so – and hope not. And I want to ask them, why are you willing to engage in spectacular intellectual and rhetorical contortions to try to be tolerant of this intolerance? And, why is it that this instinct seemingly only kicks in in the context of Islamic fundamentalism? If not tolerating intolerance is the right thing, and it is – then should always the right thing.
Cartoons are a form of art. Obviously. These same “tolerant” people tell us knowingly (because they are very sophisticated) that the whole purpose of art is to provoke, make us uncomfortable, examine our assumptions, etc. Charlie Hebdo’s main purpose too seemed to be to do exactly this – provoke and make people uncomfortable (and not just Muslims by any means). This definition of art is all I recall hearing from the people I believe are in the main today’s “but apologists” when the issue was a Crucifix in a vat of urine, or a portrait of the Virgin Mary etched in dung. In fact, in those anti-Christian cases, they seemed to mostly not only think suppressing the art would be unequivocally wrong (agreed!), they seemed to actually think the urine/dung thing was a GOOD idea and good art, in the sense that it was so provocative. What’s with the double standard? What’s with this strange inability to name…let alone unequivocally repudiate, the actions of these Islamic fundamentalist terrorists? Personally, I’m more in the “art is born to serve beauty” camp, so I object to all of the above (slandering any religion or prophet) on free speech grounds, as well as on grounds of good taste.
Let’s also contemplate for a moment the role of fear in all of this, as uncomfortable as that may be…are we deliberately if subconsciously rewarding the jihadis by doing exactly what they require by failing to show the public the images in question because we’re terrified of more attacks? Is that why an Ivy League university can publish a whole book on the subject of the Danish “anti-Mohammed” cartoons/assassination a few years back – and fail to actually SHOW the cartoons? For crying out loud!
In the news business, this fear factor takes on a different cast as some publishers have admitted they don’t show these images in order to protect their employees. I can understand that but wow – the implications are huge and I think we may be on a collision course where they’re going to have to either suck it up or admit the jihadis have won, lock, stock and barrel. Literally. News organizations are supposed to have a higher calling, and journalistic responsibilities. Those responsibilities are to us, the citizenry. It’s a tough call but I’m really troubled by the way most news organizations are currently breaking (don’t show the images), and that’s why I’ve distributed them on social media myself, and I hope everyone does. News breaks now on social media, and a lot of stories the mainstream media seem to ignore also get going on social media, and that’s a good thing. We have a voice…it’s not like manning the barricades – we’re not Charlie Hebdo – but it’s something.
Not to mention from a purely pragmatic perspective, the whole “appease the jihadists so they’ll leave us alone strategy” doesn’t seem to be working, or if it ever was, it’s starting to break down.
One thing is for sure, for those of us who would want nothing to do with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons outside of the current context, besides standing up for free speech, I hope maybe we’re also recognizing something about ourselves now, and the role that fear has been playing in shaping our responses to terrorism since 9/11. Undeniably, the Charlie Hebdo team had a set of brass ones. I can’t help but bow to them for that. They knew they were a target – and the possibility of being killed must have seemed very real to them, but they were undeterred. That is remarkable in today’s society – that level of conviction to principle and moral fortitude. We get to feel outraged at all kinds of stuff but we also get to leave the hard work of actually confronting problems, or fixing things, or paying for things – and fighting battles – to others. It’s one thing to say “je suis Charlie”, another to actually live out your life by the principle “I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees”. I suspect we’re going to need dig deep to find a lot more Charlie Hebdo-like courage in the months and years ahead, and everyone can help with that in their own way, and to their own degree. The “but mentality” to me though, is an abdication – and not an option.
Please keep this in mind: Where the “but” rhetorical construct is used, the writer or speaker is hedging but it is what comes after the “but” that is the point they are trying to make, and what they think is really most important (I’ve used this device multiple times in this essay – so you can go back and see what I think is really important). Sometimes – usually in fact, nuance is good and necessary however in extreme circumstances such as when lives are at stake, you really need clarity. This situation – Paris…and New York, London, Fiji, Madrid, Ottawa, Sydney… on and on, is one of those cases. The bull’s eye Islamic fundamentalists have put on all our backs make this a fight. Freedom of speech is where we make our stand.
Where Charlie Hebdo is concerned, there is no “but”.