posted at 11:31 pm
on Jan. 9, 2015
I’m in the Canadian Ultimate Championships
posted at 11:31 pm
So this horrible thing happened, and lots of people are upset, and fingers are being pointed, and vigils are being held, and hands are being wrung, and I changed my Facebook profile picture to “Je suis Charlie” in condemnation of the murder of 12 people who worked at, or protected, the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine offices in Paris, France (and another 5 in the ensuing pursuit).
Since the killings, many people since are also calling themselves Charlie (”#jesuischarlie”), and others are pointedly saying they aren’t Charlie, and one person even went so far as to say that those of use who say we are Charlie, are actually saying we’re literally a racist magazine. Well, no, I’m not, and when Le Monde ran a headline after 9/11 that said “We are all Americans” they weren’t claiming passports for the entire French population.
So I started to explain to myself because it was a fairly gut-level reaction, and then decided to explain to everyone: I’m not claiming to support every word, image or policy that Charlie Hebdo printed; I haven’t even read the magazine since I lived in France, and even then I just glanced at it. I won’t try to say that they aren’t racist; I think others might more knowledgeably speak to this, but it’s irrelevant to my decision.
Because I will agree that there are plenty of examples of horridly awful things they’ve run—awful to a broad spectrum of society, to various religious, political parties, towards LGBT folk, immigrants, the rich, the famous, various countries… And of course, towards Muslims in general, and I’m told also towards the French muslim minority, though I haven’t yet personally seen any cartoons that were targeted directly at French muslims.
Here’s the thing, though. When it comes time to defend freedom of speech, we rarely end up defending peaceful, non-controversial speech. Very few New Yorker cartoons become court battles—or gun battles for that matter. Freedom of speech is fundamentally about protecting speech that is vile, angry, blasphemous, shocking, raw or unpopular; it’s speech that someone doesn’t want spoken that needs protection.
So that’s a star to this explanation: I am Charlie, because I am on the side of those who say unpopular things, even if those things offend me.
Because so much of the conversation by those who are NOT Charlie, seems to take for granted that we shouldn’t cause offense or allow offense or support offense. The New York Times and the AP say they won’t publish images that cause offense to their large religious readerships.
(Unclear, still, how large and/or offended a readership has to be before their offended-ness matters to these publications—they publish the name “God” frequently enough, despite that being offensive to some Jewish folk, and they published photos of the “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano—until recently.)
Sure, offensiveness is probably not a great first move in opening a dialogue. But there are times when being offensive is important, when being offensive instead of remaining silent is the only way to get your message across.
Mother Teresa offended people. Copernicus offended people. Martin Luther King, Jr., offended people. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was considered very offensive by many, and is considered one of Western culture’s greatest works of satire. Just because something is offensive doesn’t mean it is wrong or without merit.
And there lies the main reason “I’m Charlie”; I also cause offense. I know I have, and I know I will again. I’ve offended people with my relationships. I’ve offended people with my citizenship, with my views on climate change. I’ve offended people by supporting gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and by choosing to work for various political, religious and commercial Web sites. I’ve offended people by taking photographs in public, here and abroad, and by writing things on this blog.
I mean, I’ve offended people just now by saying “Je Suis Charlie,” and offended them even more by defending it. Offending people is what happens when there’s a clash of ideas, when there’s initial communication about opposing beliefs. Charlie Hebdo offends a lot of people—and those people were killed because of what got published.
I’ve worked in publishing, and let me tell you, not every article is a prize-winner, and not every piece of satire is genius, or even humorous, and sadly, the worst ones are often the ones that rile up the people they’re aimed at—just take a look at Hustler’s parody which conjured up a false imagining of Jerry Falwell’s incestuous loss of virginity, and which led to the unanimous Supreme Court defense of the First Amendment right to parody.
What it comes down to, is when someone offends you, satirizes you, goads you, even hates you—that’s a consequence of being consequential and living in a free society**—a society where people are free to offend one another, because they are free to express whatever thoughts and ideas they want (and yes, you and I agree that there are limits—there are definitely some expressions of words and ideas that do and should count as crimes, let’s not go down that garden path.)
** Note, I didn’t say “the price we pay” because I don’t think it’s a cost, I think it’s an unremovable shadow of the light cast by free expression of ideas.
The fear of death, of violence, not only to you but to those around you—to bystanders, police officers, your office mates, your family… oppressive fear in retaliation for offense cannot be allowed to take over and darken the free expression of ideas that has lead to democracy, to equality, to tolerance, to scientific progress, to so many of the good things we have in today’s modern world. I want a society where we can safely offend one another without that conversation resulting in a punch in the nose or worse.
So, go ahead and offer your support for those oppressed peaceful Muslim immigrants of France, and go ahead and express how appalling you think Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and ideas are. I won’t be offended; I might even agree with you.
But I’m certain that if you lead a brave and passionate life, if you stand up and speak out for the values you believe in, then you and I both are going to offend a number of people in the coming years, and I hope to God none of them come after you, me, or anyone else with a gun in response. Because we are all Charlie.
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