Last week’s vicious attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an unarmed policewoman responding to a traffic accident and a kosher supermarket have reignited the debate about freedom of speech around the world, and perhaps most intensely here in France. The hashtag #jesuischarlie, taken up by millions and sometimes turned into #noussommestouscharlie, morphed from being a sympathetic identification with the murdered editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo to a defiant expression of the right to free speech. The analysis and discussion surrounding the issue has been intense and unrelenting. Every intelligent French talk show (and there are a few) and many news broadcasts have tried to make sense not only of how and why the terrorists carried out their murderous rampage, but what the long-term effects will be for France. In the aftermath, a crackdown on those who have expressed their agreement with the terrorists’ actions has resulted in at least fifty arrests, and one unfortunate Facebook poster has been swiftly sentenced to four years in prison.
I pasted a #jesuischarlie poster on my car window. In the hours and days after the slaughter, it seemed like the best way to share my horror and sadness, to declare that I identified with the mood of despair and defiance that took over the country. The media were full of it, and those who were indifferent to the fate of the seventeen victims or of the opinion that what Charlie Hebdo put on its covers was in poor taste didn’t get much airtime.
Charlie Hebdo has become the world’s darling. An initial print run of the first edition to appear after the killings was fifty times its usual number. A second printing has nearly doubled that. It sold out in minutes all over France, and was distributed in countries who had never previously heard of it. The cover features a turbaned, bearded individual who we are supposed to understand is Mohammed, a tear leaking from one eye, holding a Je suis Charlie sign, with the words “All is forgiven” above his head and is brilliant in its defiance without being gratuitously vulgar in the way that I think many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were.
It isn’t easy to say that you thought some of the work of Charlie’s cartoonists tasteless and offensive without edging dangerously close to an kind of unspoken ‘it’s not like there weren’t warning signs, so why did they…?’ Nobody other than an Islamist terrorist would believe that their caricatures of a the Prophet deserved an execution. But I have to wonder what the point is of mockery for the sake of it, which is how I see as the sole motivation behind some of the cartoons published in CH over the years. (Disclosure: I was vaguely aware of the magazine’s existence, but had never bought it. Since then I’ve looked at a lot of their cartoons online).
There’s been some criticism in the French press of the way American and British media have avoided showing Charlie Hebdo’s illustrations, with faintly sneering disapprobation of their perceived cowardice. A British news announcer, blindsided during an interview with a French journalist who briefly held up the cover of the latest Charlie issue before the camera cut away, immediately apologised to viewers who might have been offended by what they had just seen. This incident was probably widely reported everywhere, with some of the same sarcastic glee expressed by the French.
I’ve gone back and forth on this whole thing in discussion with my husband, mostly, and my French-born daughter, who initially declared herself to be Charlie, then disengaged. Depending on who I’m reading or listening to, I might agree that freedom of speech should be absolute, other than in specific cases such as uttering threats or slander. The next day, I’m leaning away, to a point of view more like, ‘yeah, but let’s just treat each other more respectfully, and see relentless mockery for what it is in the playground – bullying.’ I don’t pretend to have an intellectual or historical perspective on satire, and am more inclined to see it in the same utterly subjective way I and countless others view art: I know good stuff when I see it.
I’ve learned that France law already restricts free speech to a degree that would be unthinkable in the US, and there’s a risk that restrictions will be broadened. According to a law professor in Poitiers who was quoted in this article, a hypocrisy exists in how aggressively legislation addresses anti-Semitic speech, but is not necessarily as protective of verbal assault on other religions. It was interesting to find out, however, that Brigitte Bardot has been found guilty no less than five times for her remarks about Muslims. (She has yet to pay her fines).
American media seems to generally stay away from skewering religions, as do the Canadians. There are probably all kinds of exceptions, of course, but I can’t think of a North American equivalent. The culture of Canadian humour, if you could even paint it with a remotely broad brush, tends to avoid vulgarity. Disrespect is a basic function of satire, but is acceptable when it serves a justifiable purpose, which is often to provoke critical thinking. But gratuitous disrespect, especially when aimed at a particular group, whether religion-based or not, isn’t a particularly Canadian way to raise to laugh.
Religion, as pointed out by a commenter to the article cited above, isn’t just a set of beliefs. It is often central to identity and culture, and thus doubly immune to so-called rational discourse with those who don’t share common ground. You can’t legislate people into not taking offense, although you could perhaps educate them into understanding that opinions expressed by anyone about anything at all are simply a reflection of the speaker’s beliefs, culture, education. Not to forget that such expression has the potential to expose the speaker to disagreement, ostracism. loss of employment, relationships etc if her audience extends beyond to groups with dissimilar views. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, there were enough nodding heads to warrant continued publication.
I don’t have answers, and I don’t think anybody does. The constraints on free speech that characterise European legislation exist, in large part, because of Europe’s particular history. Decades ago, long before France banned the niqab and wearing of headscarves as a sign of adherence to Islam, Belgium outlawed the wearing of any symbols that would indicate membership in a religious or political group. This well-intentioned but imperfect response to the forcing of Jews to wear the Star of David is viewed by some, in its French version, as an assault on individual liberty of expression. In a perfect world, all humans would be taught, both through the lens of their religion and a cultural code of conduct, that we are all entitled to believe what we want and obligated to respect that others have the same right.
History both drives and illuminates the present. This week I was surprised to learn, while watching a news report on French TV, that depictions of the prophet Mohammed were not considered blasphemous until the Middle Ages. His likeness is found in ancient editions of the Koran, which forbids only depictions of God, thereby discouraging idolatry. But over the centuries, Islamic scholars have extended this to include the prophets, of which Mohammed is believed by Muslims to have been the last – and the truest – to have been sent by God.
The debate about freedom of expression will go on for a long time. Forever, if we’re lucky. What I hope to remember, as a guiding principle, is that the right to say what I think – and with it, the right to give offense – will always be met by an equal right to disagree – or take offense – and that I should be prepared to accept that there may be consequences – well short of facing down a Kalashnikov – in terms of my relationships with others. The only dictum from my religious education that I believe has absolute validity is the Golden Rule, or if you prefer, the ethic of reciprocity. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’