The Take Engines took a few hours to crank up after the terrible murders at Charlie Hebdo yesterday, but by last night they were in overdrive, and for once I was glad, because beyond “can we please stop with the murdering?” I didn’t know what to think about it. So I traveled deep into the content mines, and I emerge here with what I’m afraid is undeniably An Explainer, but at least it’s only an explainer of the questions I found within myself, and the best answers I could come up with for them.
What the heck does “Hebdo” mean?
It’s short for “hebdomadaire,” or “weekly.” “Charlie” apparently referred to Charlie Brown. So the magazine’s name in English is “Charlie Weekly.” I may be the only person who didn’t know this already.
Who committed these murders?
Early reports said the attackers were three French Muslim extremists, and that seems to be the case. The New York Times is reporting that they were two French brothers of Algerian descent, along with an 18 year old getaway driver. Like all breaking news stories, there is still some confusion and details might change. It’s still an assumption that the attackers were motivated by the magazine’s criticism of Islam, but it seems like a pretty fair assumption so far.
Should people be killed for drawing offensive cartoons?
Freddie deBoer has a good post addressing this, about “dead moral questions”. No, of course people should not be killed for drawing offensive cartoons. Or any kind of cartoons! On this there is, as deBoer points out, “no disagreement. None at all.” He goes on to demand: “point me to any piece that endorses these killings that does not come from the looniest fringes of our political order.” I’m sorry to report that those fringes now start at America’s third-largest newspaper by national circulation, USA Today, who thought it advisable to publish this indefensible garbage from British jihadist cleric Anjem Choudary. It’s basically the “I say, let ’em crash!” gag from Airplane, but about real murders. Aside from USA Today though, literally zero reasonable people think this attack was anything but a terrible tragedy and waste.
Should people be killed for any other reason?
Wait, you don’t think people should be killed, like, at all?
So let’s see these cartoons then.
Surely freedom of speech is the most important principle at stake here?
Many people agree! Jonathan Chait declared that “The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.” So political liberalism has a duty to engage in blasphemy. I eagerly await Chait’s Mohammed/Christ slashfic! But until he gets around to publishing it, you can read Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker, “those dead French cartoonists were braver by far than most of us in going up against the deadly foes of our civilization…,” or Peter Beinart in The Atlantic: “Tomorrow… newspapers around the world should put that cartoon on their front pages.” Former Onion editor Joe Randazzo wrote that “this was what an actual attack on freedom looks like.” The Guardian’s editorial board titled their response “Those guns were trained on free speech.” And no less than beloved regular-guy comedian Louis C.K. wrote the magazine’s name on his shirt for his NY show last night. And when have we ever disagreed with Louis, right? He’s so chubby and self-deprecating!
I feel like you think there’s another side to this.
Well ok, yes, I do. Arthur Goldhammer makes the point, in Al-Jazeera America, that the sacralization of Charlie Hebdo going on right now was inimical to the magazine’s entire mission, that “[s]uch homage to the magazine… is the precise opposite of what the living Charlie was about.” So, while we hold in mind that these murders were wrong and all murders are wrong, I think we can separately examine whether Charlie Hebdo’s work should be published far and wide, and adulated as the highest standard-bearer of freedom.
Look: those cartoons are racist as hell. They exist in (and sometimes exacerbate) a French cultural climate of increasing racism. In a blog post for The Hooded Utilitarian, Jacob Canfield explains this better than anyone else I’ve seen:
White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.
In Jacobin, Richard Seymour writes that:
…there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow “legitimate targets,” and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.”
The Chait / Beinart line seems to wholly conflate these two different kinds of solidarity.
In an almost shockingly reasonable and level-headed post on Vox, Matt Yglesias, of all people, makes the clearest argument I’ve read about “rights that shouldn’t be exercised”:
Blasphemous, mocking images cause pain in marginalized communities. The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups. European Muslims find themselves crushed between the actions of a tiny group of killers and the necessary response of the majority society. Problems will increase for an already put-upon group of people.
Isn’t this a terrible moment to try to see both sides?
Maybe. I’ve read a lot since yesterday, trying to understand all of this. Yesterday I wrote “maybe there’s a way we, as a species, could somehow chart a course in between “cause maximum offense at all times” and “murder people for cartoons”? And I guess this is all just the #longform version of that, with links.
I condemn the attacks on the cartoonists even though I don’t agree with the publication’s editorial slant, which I have often found to be hurtful and racist. Nevertheless, I would continue to stand for their freedom of speech…
Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon and one I have never fully had – but for those who do have it, I wish they would stop taking it for granted.
Instead, they ought to ask the right questions – the questions that need to be asked – rather than accusatory ones that fuel the stereotypes that have originated in mainstream media.
Their work must focus on conveying the right message. They must work towards bridging the gap – and not widening it.
Today in Tabs would really prefer to go back to laughing at dumpster boyfriend sometime soon. Can we do that? Whether we can or not, find us on Fast Company and in your email. Bijan will be back next week. Follow me on twitter @Rustyk5, and obey my thirst.