Charlie Hebdo is not a magazine I would normally read. Don’t get me wrong – I love satire, which is not necessarily what Charlie Hebdo does. Satire, to be affective, needs to offend for the purpose of making us think deeper. At times Charlie Hebdo does succeed in showing the absurdity of power relationships through its cartoons, but more often then not, it seems to offend for the sake of developing a niche market that might prove profitable. And yet, based on their financial difficulties, it seems their brand of humor has not been all that popular.
I too have found Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent portrayal of religious symbols offensive. A cartoon of toilet paper marked “Bible,” “Torah” and “Quran” with the caption: “In the toilet all religions,” does not engender meaningful conversations concerning the complexities and nuances of individuals who claim a spiritual and/or religious worldview. More disturbing is the November 9, 2012 cartoon depicting God the Father being sodomized by Jesus who in turn is being sodomized by the Holy Spirit. Dismissive depictions serve mainly to attack and ridicule venerable symbols in a fashion exposes the illustrators’ intolerant fundamentalism, which in this case is liberal fundamentalism. And yet, as distasteful and offensive as I might find some of these cartoons, I believe that their voices have a place if we are to have an open society. Support for radical free speech means defending the rights of expression for those with whom you disagree, be they communists, capitalists, Fox News, MSNBC, fundamentalists Christians or Muslims, tea partyers or Charlie Hebdo – as long as violence is denounced.
The horrors that occurred in Paris are condemnable, and yet it is just as condemnable when some who decry the so-called intolerance of Islam also employ violent acts. Those engaging in acts of violence against Muslims in retaliation for the attack on Charlie Hebdo are no different than the murders of the cartoonists and editors. All violence, regardless of the perpetrators or their undergirding ideology, deserves universal condemnation, even if the violence committed was in the name of the cause you believe.
The events that are still unfolding leads me to certain observations on ways we might be able to move forward in the midst of horror. Of course, there is the obvious – stressing that discourse, not violence, is how we engage those with whom we disagree. But just as important is our state of conversation, because too often we rush to dishonor rather than engage. Let’s start with how neither Obama nor Bush are the anti-Christ. Dismissing a person through rhetorical labels is a silencing technique that has all too often become the norm. Regardless as to how articulately and calmly I have expressed my views in the past, every so often I am written off as an “angry Latino.” The use of that type of label gives “permission” to disregard all I have said.
Hate speech must also be avoided – not censored. And while some fringe corners may argue that Charlie Hebdo engaged in hate speech, thus blaming the victim – it really does not matter if they did. Violence through censorship (either burning books during Nazi Germany or banning books in Arizona School districts) or violence through the barrel of a gun is equally wrong. This means that I must be willing to defend the rights of Klan-type organizations to spew their hate speech, which vilifies immigrants and people of color, because. making those organizations into martyrs and driving them underground through silencing only adds to their allure. But when they operate in the open, we can discredit them through the power of our pens.
Je ne suis pas Charlie because I lack the hubris to place myself in their pain and sacrifice, as if I get to share in it from the safety of my armchair. Also, I am not Charlie Hebdo because of its racist and anti-religious views. The best I can do is say that I stand ready to defend their rights, and anyone else’s right to vocally disagree with my views, no matter how wrong I might believe them to be. I can proclaim en solidarité avec Charlie because I can stand in solidarity with all whose voices are silenced, regardless if I agree or disagree with those voices. We are quick, with righteous indignation, to fight for our right to free expression; but are we willing to fight, with the same intensity, for the free expression of those with whom we disagree? Maybe, if we all can begin to learn to defend the free expression of the other, we might see a decrease in some of these forms of violent silencing.