by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez
guest edited by Pi Anlo
Please forgive us. We’ve dropped nearly everything from our music and movie coverage for a few days to put our heads together and react to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo.
You see, we see Charlie Hebdo differently than many. Let us be clear: no one deserves to die for cartoons. Charlie Hebdo staff and artists did not deserve to be attacked by terrorists.
The terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo had no justification and, if we talk about the situation of Muslims in France, we are not attempting to justify the actions of a terrorist organization that has made the situation of French Muslims even worse. Four million French Muslims and a Yemen terrorist organization are two very separate things.
We write this because, as we champion, emulate, and re-post the work of Charlie Hebdo on a massive scale, we have got to ask ourselves: what exactly are we perpetuating?
Most Muslims in France are forced to lead a lesser life with fewer rights than their non-Muslim counterparts. The French government has passed laws specifically aimed at barring Muslims from wearing religious symbols in public. Police are required to stop Muslims on the street and examine their clothing. Riots involving the murder of Muslims have become repetitive. When Muslim children are killed, even by police, the acts are often excused. Gang rape of Muslim women is not prosecuted. A whopping 85% of anti-Muslim violence targets women. Connect those last two sentences. The French prison population is 60-70% Muslim, despite Muslims making up less than 20% of France’s population.
Charlie Hebdo is not responsible for any of this. Yet it is this reality into which Charlie Hebdo launches their cartoons. We will not depict them here, but if you wish to view them, this is a good primer.
Arguments in favor of what Charlie Hebdo does run the gamut. They insult everybody, Muslims and Catholics alike. Never mind that the ratio between the two in negative cartoons, according to our in-house count, is about 9-to-1. Just answer this:
If you walked into a public place in Arizona and launched into a diatribe insulting Caucasians, would it have the same validating effect on power culture and top-down violence as it would if you walked into that same place and launched into a diatribe insulting Mexicans?
Let’s take your hypothetical speech about Caucasians. Just as Mexicans do not have the public support and media framework to take advantage of your speech about the dominant culture in Arizona, Muslims do not have that support and framework to take advantage of that viewpoint in France.
Let’s take your hypothetical speech about Mexicans. Just as politicians derive power from such viewpoints to create legal hurdles and obstacles that enable prejudicial treatment and violence toward Mexicans in Arizona, politicians derive power from dominant French viewpoints to create legal hurdles and obstacles that enable prejudicial treatment and violence toward Muslims in France.
Or, in the words of Arthur Chu: “[French President] Francois Hollande is not on the same level as girls who have been kidnapped into sexual slavery, and having the same ‘no-holds-barred’ attitude toward them both is not the same as treating them fairly.”
That’s not to say one speech has more right to exist than the other. They are both subject to free speech, an ideal that should not be censored or otherwise infringed upon. However: to quote Jacob Canfield, “Free speech does not mean freedom from criticism.”
What our metaphor serves to illustrate is that an artist has the responsibility to understand the context into which they launch their free speech, and they must take responsibility when that free speech serves to damage others.
Arguments that claim Charlie Hebdo doesn’t bother anybody are true, so long as you don’t ask the people it bothers.
Aggravation is no basis for criticism, however. What concerns us is the real-world impact. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are part of a larger cottage industry of hate perpetuation that runs from Sweden, Denmark, through the Low Countries, and all the way through France. This industry makes its profit through the maintenance and proliferation of a viewpoint that endorses a religious and racial hierarchy in Western European culture, which places European atheists, Protestants, and Catholics at the top, while Jews, Muslims, Arabs, and Africans remain at the bottom. That attitude makes France one of the most violent nations toward Muslims in the world, and that violence is increasing at an incredible rate.
The attacks on Charlie Hebdo were tragic and wrong. The aftermath of tragedy is normally a time to remain respectfully silent, and we would but for the fact this tragedy is producing icons whose hate speech is championed, idolized, emulated, and proliferated.
We support satire. We support free speech. We believe free speech is a blanket that rightfully covers many things, even hate speech, from censorship. We believe free speech, however, is not a blanket that covers over anything and everything from criticism, context, and responsibility.
We also believe in nonviolence. That is why the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo is unjustified, baseless, and tragic. It is also why we must criticize what Charlie Hebdo did as a business and as artists.
Naomi Klein posted a few days ago that “shock is not about bad things happening; it is about allowing ourselves to lose our bearings and narrative when bad things happen.”
Charlie Hebdo may represent free speech, but they also represent hate speech. If you champion them, please do not overlook the hate and violence in France to which they contribute. They still represent something important about free speech, but what they represent is part of a more complex narrative than the “us vs. them” framework currently being defined by many news outlets.
Most importantly, if you emulate, imitate, or even re-post Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons for the sake of free speech, please be aware that you may bring the very real baggage of hate speech along with you, and that – in its own way – continues the proliferation of that hate.
As Teju Cole wrote in the New Yorker, “It is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”
Thank you. We’ll get back to movies, music, and our usual wheelhouse of American social commentary in a few days.
Please note that the writers who contribute here do not constitute a hivemind. This article is endorsed by its writers: Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez, and its guest editor for cultural context, Pi Anlo. It is also endorsed by writers S.L. Fevre and Olivia Smith.
It is not endorsed by Maria Felicia, Eden O’Nuallain, and Rachel Ann Taylor, a choice that we respect.