Je ne suis pas Charlie

The daily news is so full of shootings and other atrocities nowadays that I can hardly tell one from another. Consequently, I can’t muster up much in the way of grief or outrage for most of these incidents no matter how close to home they hit or how high the body count is or how horrific the details might be. I just don’t have the emotional energy to spare, I’m afraid. The last ghastly incident that really hit home for me was the shooting at Sandy Hook school.

The recent events in Paris, however, have struck a chord in me that has my jimmies more rustled than they’ve been in at least the past two years.

Twelve people were shot and killed at a French newspaper called Charlie Hebdo, ostensibly by Muslim militants who were angered by the newspaper’s satirical writings and drawings about the Islamic prophet Mohammed. In solidarity with those who were killed, including four editorial cartoonists, many writers and illustrators and ordinary people across Europe and around the world are taking up the slogan “Je Suis Charlie (I Am Charlie).”

As a former newspaper reporter, I suppose I could be expected to stand up for my fallen brethren in support of their ironclad ideals of freedom of speech and to applaud and admire their courage to lampoon all that is sacred to, well, almost everyone. Charlie Hebdo, so the line goes, was an equal-opportunity offender of every class, culture, creed and religion. Their cartoons aimed at Islam, in particular, are said to be scathing and often scatological. I wouldn’t know, since I don’t seek out this particular form of commentary. In fact, until two days ago, I had never heard of this publication and probably never would have if they hadn’t been so brutally thrust onto the world stage.

I have a lot of swirling and conflicted feelings about this incident that are difficult to sort out into straight lines.

While I recognize the need in free societies for publications like Charlie Hebdo that are not afraid to pull the tiger’s tail and publish words and pictures that others find too taboo to touch, I also don’t appreciate that sort of content. I would never seek it out, and I resent being pushed to inadvertently participate in this trampling of Muslim sensibilities by other news outlets that are publishing some of the controversial images that Charlie Hebdo did. I appreciate the news outlets that are declining to do so despite being called cowards by some of their readers.

Paul Farhi (“News organizations wrestle with whether to publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons after attack“) writes in The Washington Post:

Neither the New York Times nor The Washington Post has ever published the Danish or French cartoons, and both indicated Wednesday that they don’t intend to.

The Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, said his paper doesn’t publish material “deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.” He said Times editors decided that describing the cartoons rather than showing them “would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”

Similarly, The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, said his newspaper avoids publication of material “that is pointedly, deliberately, or needlessly offensive to members of religious groups” and would continue to apply those principles in the wake of the Paris atrocity.

The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, in a blog post, only tepidly supports her employer’s decision not to publish the images (“A Close Call on Publication of Charlie Hebdo Cartoons“):

[NYT Executive Editor Dean] Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression….

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

Sullivan concludes, “The Times undoubtedly made a careful and conscientious decision in keeping with its standards. However, given these events—and an overarching story that is far from over—a review and reconsideration of those standards may be in order in the days ahead.”

The Guardian also declined to republish the cartoons (“The Guardian view on Charlie Hebdo: show solidarity, but in your own voice“) and said in an editorial:

The key point is this: support for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments. Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words.

Each and every publication has a different purpose and ethos. Charlie Hebdo is not the Guardian or the New York Times, nor is it the Daily Mail or Private Eye. The animating intention behind its work was to satirise and provoke in a distinctive voice, one that would not sit easily in other publications.

New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks (“I am not Charlie Hebdo“) notes that even if you claim to be Charlie (or at least share its ideals), “Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.”

When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

But after a while that seems puerile.

A commenter on this story called all American media cowards and hypocrites, saying, “Your case would have been far stronger had you compared the courage of Charlie Hebdo with the cowardice & appeasement of American media. This very newspaper will not publish satirical cartoons commenting on Islam even as it will freely analyze, say, The Book of Mormon. The most galling example is that Comedy Central has censured South Park’s satire on Mohammed, in which Parker/Stone examine the lengths their station will go to self-censure. As soon as “Revolution Muslim” threatened death to Parker & Stone for the episode, Comedy Central responded by heavily censuring & ultimately removing the episode. So in a show that freely satirizes Christians, Mormons, Jews & everyone, somehow Muslims are forbidden—It’s not out of delicacy or political correctness or being respectful or disrespectful. It’s out of cowardice, appeasement & moral weakness.”

Jennifer Schuessler (“Charlie Hebdo Attack Chills Satirists and Prompts a Debate“) writes in the New York Times:

But amid all the “I Am Charlie” marches and declarations on social media, some in the cartooning world are also debating a delicate question: Were the victims free-speech martyrs, full stop, or provocateurs whose aggressive mockery of Islam sometimes amounted to xenophobia and racism? ….

Mr. [Tom] Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter said that when he posted some of what he called Charlie Hebdo’s “ugly, racist” covers in a show of solidarity on Wednesday, he got a number of emails from cartoonists challenging the decision.

“Some people questioned such work as simply cruelty hiding behind the idea of free speech,” Mr. Spurgeon said.

Rabbi Michael Lerner (“Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy“) writes in the Huffington Post:

the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.

To even raise this kind of question is to open oneself up to charges of not caring about the murdered or making excuses for the murderers. But neither charge is accurate. …

“But they ridicule everyone’s religion, not just the Muslim’s, so isn’t that fair?​” we are reassured. But the reassurance isn’t reassuring. That they ridicule everyone is exactly the problem—the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone. … So let’s call demeaning speech, including demeaning humor, what it really is—an assault on the dignity of human beings.

And finally, here is cartoonist Joe Sacco’s response to the shooting (click image for a larger version).

sacco-on-satire

Surely we can do better by one another, and we at least ought to try because we really are all in this together.

Extremism is extremism, and murder is murder that cannot be “justified” by religious beliefs. By the same token, racism, bigotry and bullying are disrespectful and abusive no matter what religious or ethnic group is the target—or the source, either, for that matter.

That is why I am not Charlie. I don’t stand with those who mock and belittle and attack others simply because they can, yet claim to be valiant defenders of liberty and freedom. I believe in respect and kindness toward all and in promoting what you love, not bashing what you hate.

 

Advertisements

Pushing the buttons

As an American and a former member of the Fourth Estate, I fully support both the theory and practice of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, as a decent human being, I do not support using these freedoms as an excuse or a means to offend, oppress or endanger other people.

Which brings us to the matter of recent media depictions of the prophet Mohammed that have set the Muslim world ablaze. In particular is a crummy, low-budget film called “Innocence of Muslims” that was written and directed, apparently, by an Egyptian who hired his cast under false pretenses and edited their performances in post production. But since it was made in America, protests have erupted in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and many other predominantly Muslim countries specifically targeting American embassies, some of which have resulted in the death of American diplomats. Some Muslims say President Obama should apologize to them for the actions of this Coptic Christian Egyptian man who has insulted their faith. I am completely dumbfounded by this issue for three reasons.

First, how is it that America–its people, its government, its diplomatic corps–is in any way to blame for the existence or message of this film, except insofar as the laws of this country protect the freedom of speech that makes the production of a film like “Innocence of Muslims” possible?

Second, what right do Muslims have to kill anyone simply for “insulting” their faith? As Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times, “an insult—even one as stupid and ugly as the anti-Islam video on YouTube that started all of this—does not entitle people to go out and attack embassies and kill diplomats. That is not how a proper self-governing people behave. There is no excuse for it. It is shameful.” All the major religious figures–Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Moses, the Dalai Lama, and so on–have all been dissected, mocked, caricatured and “insulted” by somebody somewhere, yet their followers do not go to war over it. Recently I have read articles suggesting that Jesus might have been married, or possibly gay, yet no attacks or demonstrations of any kind have resulted from the publication of this information. What makes Islam so special that nobody can say a word against it or its prophet without inciting the wrath of the faithful?

And finally, with all this said, I still have to ask: Knowing how Muslims feel about their prophet and what they will do to defend his name, why do Western media continue distributing words and images that they know are unequivocally insulting to Islam and/or Mohammed? What purpose is served by jamming a thumb in the eye of one-quarter of the planet’s population whose beliefs we do not share? Is this something we (meaning non-Muslims) should do just because, according to our laws and traditions, we can?

I say no. To quote Friedman again, “There is no excuse for it. It is shameful.”