My condolences to all the lives loss in the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. The lost of life under such violent circumstances is never justifiable. Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the publication, no one should be killed because of a political cartoon.
One thing this tragedy did was spark conversations about the responsibility of the press, editorial authority, and whether or not free speech is an all or nothing concept. At the risk of oversimplifying an extremely complex issue, but I think there are three main camps in discourse around free speech:
1) Any censorship is antithetical to free speech
2) Censorship is necessary in certain cases
3) Just because you can say anything doesn’t mean you should.
Personally, I think free speech is one of the biggest human rights paradoxes. While much more nuanced than I can explain here, my position is between Camp 2 and 3. It’s summed up in this: the right to say what you want should not take away the dignity of others. Speech and censorship aren’t as distinct as we surmise. Both promote certain ideologies (good, bad, or in between) and repress others. Our impulse to censor often stems from whether or not we agree with the articulated ideology (example, few would argue that Hitler’s anti-semitic propaganda is free speech). So one some levels, these arguments are about “I’m not promoting the ideology that you say I am”, not about being able to say anything. We can censor speech, but we can also speak with the intention to censor.
I think the push to keep the conversation of censorship in the realm of the conceptual and not everyday interactions misses the point. Because there are plenty of examples where we champion free speech in one instance, but allow ourselves to be censored, by self or others. How many comedians make jokes about slavery, but would never poke fun at the Holocaust? How many people would argue that they should be able to say the word “nigga” too, but wouldn’t that they should be able to call women bitches? How many of us post “Je Suis Charlie” but think #BlackLivesMatter reverse racism? Should we be able to say things that affects others in a negative way? When do we universally argue the message is more important than the medium, or only when it is us and them?
I give all these examples to show how superheroes for free speech aren’t necessarily arguing everyone should be able to say everything, they are arguing that they should be able to say the specific thing in question. And to me, that is problematic. What we say matters, but also who says it, why they are saying, what are they leaving out (and why), and how it was perceived (regardless of intention). Their biggest talking point is that nothing is off limits, but I don’t think the vast majority of them actually think nothing should be off limits. Let me give you a more specific example why.
Let’s say you are a political cartoonist who wants to make a point about rape. I think most would agree that depicting a taboo subject like rape already shows what the cartoonist deems to be fair game. The demographic depicted matters as well (race, religion, ethnicity, etc.). But what we don’t talk about is how these choices reveal what the cartoonist deems “off limits”. They would depict you or I if we were the ones raped, but would they do the same thing if it were their mother, wife, daughter, sister, or anyone they identify with directly? Many will ask the obvious question “why would anybody draw a political cartoon of their mother getting raped?” And that’s my point. There are are SOME things that are off limits. We all hold certain things sacred, doesn’t mean we all hold the same things sacred. So when, for example, a Muslim person says they have a problem with depictions of Muhammad, the “nothing is off limits” argument really only tells that person “Muhammad is not off limits to me”. It’s fair to say critics should give these cartoons more thought, but it’s unfair to say they should not be offended by them and that the intention matters more than the action. Freedom of speech is still a choice.
Why is Charlie Hebdo able to enlist racist tropes as political commentary, but Muslim women are prosecuted for wearing hijabs in public? Would the editors in charge of Charlie Hebdo have depicted kidnapped girls as hideous, pregnant (assumably from rape) if those girls were from France? From the U.S.? Does the fact these girls are Nigerian provide a level of separation that makes them an easier target or usable tool to convey a political point?
I’m trying to convey that speech is only free when it is unimpeded lies on 3 premises:
1) Any form of censorship is bad
2) Those of us who support unimpeded free speech are objective or at least are invested in a level of objectivity that people like me (who do believe there should be some limits) don’t have or at least aren’t invested in.
3) Open Forum = Equal Access
Many of these discussions overlook how freedom of speech is also about access and how the push for open forum is about preserving power, and in an ironic way, purely unimpeded free speech can be a way to preserve the status quo, not challenge it. This an extreme example, but in the past, racists were totally invested in censorship, in every sense of the word. But now that they don’t have the institutional power and voice they once had, they champion of free speech. Their ideology didn’t change, just their power level. To use America as an example, minorities claimed their rights because they had free speech, but also (in part) because as a society, we decided that it was ok to censor racism, at least enough for the ideology of equality to overshadow it. There is no law saying people can’t say racist things, but we constantly provide an impediment to their access (i.e. restricted their free speech in some way).
Champions of unimpeded free speech defend the most hateful speech in order to prove just how much they support this ideology. But I want to push back on the idea that political cartoonists are apolitical or objective (as individuals or as a profession); they push their individual politics as well. Just because you believe in free speech, does not mean you have no biases. In fact, the vehement in which you defend certain things over others depends on whether or not it confirms your biases, whatever they may be. So when people point out what you did is wrong, it’s not to rob you of your freedom of speech, it’s to point out that you are just as biased as everyone.
And that they disagree with you.
(This article from Daily Beast articulated some of my thoughts on this really well. If you want a different views on the subject, including interpretation of the above cartoon, check out this article from Vox)