Charlie Hebdo, solidarity, bigotry, and protecting cartoonists’ freedom

I divided this post into two parts. I suspect that some people will feel very differently about those two parts. I would request that if the first part really bothers you and you want to stop reading it, please at least check out the second part, because the cartoonists’ rights group that I’m trying to drum up support for in that part still deserves your consideration.

Part I: The Part That Some People Will Probably Hate

In the wake of the horrible massacre at the French offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, I’ve seen a lot of people portraying it as some kind of duty to free speech and freedom of the press to spread the images that angered or upset some Muslims, including, presumably, the killers. It reminds me a bit of the reaction after Sony’s fiasco with the movie The Interview – which was also criticized for bigotry – where people want to see or propagate the media under attack as a thumb in the eye of those who would threaten violence over someone’s free speech. The people taking this position, using this tactic to fight back against censorship through violence, generally seem to consider any bigotry in the embattled speech to be beside the point – they’re making a statement that we should defend someone’s right to speech to the death, even if we don’t agree with it (a sentiment that I agree with).

But do most people really consider bigotry in such speech to be beside the point when they decide whether to propagate it?

If someone had shot up the offices of German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung over this anti-Semitic cartoon from last year, or killed staff of the late Andrew Breitbart’s “Big Journalism” website over this nonsense from 2011, would most of the same people distribute those cartoons, retweet them, make them into a user profile picture on social media? If a black person in the US had killed cartoonists for drawing images like these racist ones, would they do it (and would they accept “But those cartoonists made fun of everyone!” as a reason to do it?)? I am willing to believe that there are some people who believe so strongly that the appropriate response to speech-related threats is to broadcast the speech, that they would do it, but I would be very surprised if a large number of people were willing to associate themselves with those images as a gesture of solidarity. For most people, the gesture is sincere as a defense of free speech and a raised middle finger to terrorism, but it’s also indicative of the speech that they’re propagating meeting a certain level of social acceptability in their eyes.

You can see a lot of Charlie Hebdo Islam-related cartoons here (I want to note that I don’t agree with everything said in that article – among other things, repeatedly referencing the white staff when two of the dead staff members, including one of the dead cartoonists, were North African, is pretty erasing). At least in my view, they’re hardly better than my examples of bigoted cartoons from the previous paragraph. I trust that for most of my readers, the problem with depicting Boko Haram sex slaves as angry welfare queens with broad African-caricature noses and bad teeth is clear enough, but let’s look at some of the others. The long, hooked nose and heavy beard with which the cartoons depict Muslims (including in the famous “100 lashes” and “Love is stronger than hate” covers) are standard aspects of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab caricature, and popular association between turbans and Islamic fundamentalism is connected with violent anti-Muslim attitudes. Yet this caricature is apparently more socially acceptable than anti-black or anti-Semitic caricature.

No, I’m not impugning on your or the dead cartoonists’ free speech by saying that anyone should shoot you over the cartoons, or anyone should have shot them over the cartoons, or that you can’t plaster the cartoons all over social media because of racism, or that there should be hate speech laws, or anything like that. I am definitely not saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are in any way to blame for the slaughter, a blame that rests entirely with the murderers. I’m not conflating random people plastering a cartoon on social media with newspapers blurring out the cartoons, either – newspapers frequently depict things that could legitimately be hurtful as part of their job of covering the news. I’m just asking people to consider what images, if any, they would consider beyond the pale to propagate in a situation like this, and why they set their particular lines the way they do.

Part II: The Part That I Hope Everyone Can Get Behind

So if you don’t want to spread the cartoons (or if you do, for that matter), what else can you do to express your outrage at the vicious murder of 12 people, your admiration for people who didn’t back down from political speech in the face of violence, your support for cartoonists’ free speech? As it happens, I got this idea from Susie Cagle, a political cartoonist and journalist in Oakland. Cagle is a second-generation political cartoonist, the daughter of Daryl Cagle, a political cartoonist who received many death threats for his cartooning. She has faced violence for her cartooning herself, as evidenced by her story of being (along with protesters) arrested and sexually humiliated by the police during her cartoon-based coverage of Occupy Oakland in 2011.

I learned something I didn’t know from Cagle’s tweets – that most free press organizations don’t include cartoonists. I also learned from her about the relatively tiny Cartoonists Rights Network International, the one organization with a mission to protect abused and endangered cartoonists of all political stripes all over the world, through such means as advocacy directly with governments, international pressure campaigns, and a safety guide for cartoonists at risk. You can read about the brave cartoonists that they’re supporting here.

Wouldn’t it be great if the legacy of the Charlie Hebdo massacre victims was that fellow cartoonists around the world were protected or rescued from imprisonment, torture, murder?

You can donate to CRNI here – I did so yesterday. Regardless of what you think of my views on the content or propagation of the cartoons, or what else you’re doing or not doing to show solidarity, please consider supporting the free speech of all political cartoonists everywhere by giving them money. And say that you did it! Propagate it on social media! Spread it around!

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1 comment to Charlie Hebdo, solidarity, bigotry, and protecting cartoonists’ freedom

  • pseudalicious

    Not super related to this (excellent) post, but I just wanted to say how glad I am that you’re blogging. You’ve always been one of my favorite commenters at Lawyers, Guns & Money. You bring a really great and needed perspective. Also, the fact that you have the guts and know-how to be a street medic is really impressive.

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