The response immediately following the attacks on the office of the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo where twelve people were killed by two Islamic terrorists was an overwhelming rally in support of free speech.
Unified cartoonists world-wide who had seen several of their own gunned down, dashed to their drawing boards and fired back with a salvo of cartoons that characterized the tools of their profession as weapons. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes became guns, swords and bombs, all aimed in a retaliatory stance at the terrorists who would dare to challenge their freedom of expression. All made emphasis of the romantically popular notion that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Many rediscovered what had originally attracted them to the medium and what slain editor/cartoonist, Stephane Charbonnier fully appreciated since his office was firebombed in 2011 after his publication featured a caricature of the profit Mohammad on the cover; cartoons are powerful weapons in the arsenal of free speech. Charbonnier and his staff were relentless in their use of them in retaliation since.
Many cried that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on the right to freedom of speech. In reality it was a violently vulgar and barbarically murderous response to Charlie Hebdo’s unfettered exercise of their freedom of speech. The terrorist’s retaliation with lethal force only emphasized the true power of expression executed by the publication.
Free speech, as characterized by the cartoonists of the world, can be a weapon! It can be used in many dangerous ways to harm others and in most cultures, including our own, it is limited in some way to prevent things like, libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, hate speech, public order and security. Free speech, like any right, requires that we accept responsibility and accountability for our use of it.
Charbonnier understood this and was willing to die for his right to be provocative.
“I don’t have kids, no wife, no car, no credit,” he said two years after the 2011 attack. “Maybe it’s a little pompous to say, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
He died with journalists and cartoonists that shared his conviction but also endangered others that may not have, including his police bodyguard that was Muslim and the students held hostage by his assailants days later substantiating the fears of the French government that implored them to tone down their provocation.
Many of us who also value the responsibilities our freedom of speech would have a hard time being as provocative as those at Charlie Hebdo. Few in the world are, either out of fear of reprisal by extremists or out of an unwillingness to offend or degrade another’s race, religion or culture. We may not be able to respect Charlie Hebdo’s message or point of view, but it is hard to not be impressed by their conviction and accountability.
Art Spiegelman intelligently described the mission of Charlie Hebdo this way in a recent interview:
“It’s a magazine that’s just trying to afflict. It’s trying to take full advantage of the ability to stir things up. And that’s—in a world where everything is stirred up, I’ve heard all of these discussions about, “No, no, no, we mustn’t stir things up, because it’s such a fraught situation.” But what are we supposedly—in our culture clash of civilizations, we’re not trying to find a culture that’s so repressed it can’t function; it’s one where we have to look at various issues from various points of view.”
This is the true value of free speech, the opportunity to compare points of view, no matter how extreme, in an effort to understand our own. Just as good cannot be measured without evil to compare it too, neither can opinion without an extreme right or left. Eliminating the extreme only narrows the range of the opposition until there is none. Imagine a world where we can have no opinion.
In the last month we have seen two significant challenges to free speech: the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the threats against Sony’s film, The Interview. Both instances show that it is possible to instigate violent and heinous responses to an expression of an idea especially when it is interpreted as an assault with a weapon as potentially dangerous as free speech operating from an extreme position.
Free speech for all intentions should initiate an open discussion that represents all sides even if no agreement even if no agreement can be reached. Nobody should ever be made to die or be threatened for their expression of ideas. Words and pictures do not kill! It is an unfortunate reality, however, that for some, the discussion inevitably and sometimes predictably concludes in violence.
Political cartoonist/journalist Ted Rall recently stated in a brief editorial,
“Political cartoonists receive threats. After 9/11, especially, people promised to blow me up with a bomb, slit the throats of every member of my family, rape me and deprive me of a livelihood by organizing sketchy boycott campaigns. (That last one almost worked.)”
This is a hard lesson that has been learned throughout the ages and as Charlie Hebdo and Sony experienced – free speech is not speech without consequences.
Maybe before we continue to weaponize free speech we should re-embrace its ability to invoke peace and use its tremendous power to make art not war.