Monday, January 12, 2015

Is Charlie Freedom?

            I have said many times before that I live under a rock – as such, it takes something really big in the news to find its way to me. Such is the case with the Charlie Hebdo attack this past week.

            For those who haven’t heard of it yet, last Wednesday two gunmen attacked the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo (a weekly satirical newspaper in France), killing twelve people and wounding another eleven. The attack led to a global cry to support free speech.

            On the surface, it is a very simple matter. People were silenced for the ideas they expressed and the world has spoken up saying we’ll stand behind Charlie Hebdo and the right to free speech. I thought it was incredible, at first, until I looked into more facts and the matter became far more complicated.

            As I mentioned earlier, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical paper – more than that, it is a far left-wing one, openly poking fun at all religions and politics, sometimes in very vulgar ways. This particular attack was carried out by a pair of Muslims who saw their Prophet being made fun of in the paper.

            Now, does that justify murder? No, of course not – nothing does. Their religion wasn't the only one being made fun of and none of the others took this sort of drastic action. However, I think that this is a good time to stop and think on what freedom of speech actually means.

            I'veblogged before about freedom and how complicated it actually is, and this situation goes to demonstrate that fact. You see, the freedom to say anything you want doesn't mean you should say it. A big part of freedom is responsibility and the biggest responsibility is respecting other peoples’ freedom. The freedom to think, believe, say and do as they will.

            When you take that freedom of speech and start throwing it in people’s faces, you are expressing your freedom by denying others’ theirs. That is what Charlie Hebdo does, at least as far as I can gather. They make jokes about whatever they can and, when people say they get hurt, they claim “free speech!” This same claim is regularly made all over the internet by people who have hurt others. “I have free speech, so you aren't allowed to get mad at me for what I say, even if I am stomping all over everything you believe.”

            I'm confident that the contents of Charlie Hebdo have never been intended to hurt anyone. Quite the opposite – it’s meant to make people laugh! Words are powerful, though. That’s why people try to ban certain books. We’re taught from childhood that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. It’s a lie. Words hurt – we just tell ourselves that they don’t to try and make them hurt less.

            Humour is all well and good, but why must it come at the expense of others? It’s important to be able to laugh at yourself, but not everyone has been able to acquire that skill. All some people can see are others laughing at them and what they care about. Of course they’re going to retaliate.

            Following the attack, a huge campaign has started: “Je Suis Charlie”, or “I Am Charlie” - the support of free speech. On one level, I completely support it because freedom is so important. At the same time, I cannot condone the content of Charlie Hebdo which, while intended to be funny, can also be inflammatory and insulting – taking freedom of speech to the extreme that spits in the face of others’ freedom.

            Now, there is a simple solution to this sort of conundrum: simply don’t read things that offend you. Is it Charlie Hebdo’s fault that the attackers read their paper? No. That doesn't stop people though – it seems to be in human nature to poke at wounds; to seek out that which causes us pain. We’re drawn like bugs to lamps, with this dread fascination, toward things we know we should keep away from.

            In the end, it doesn't really matter, though, does it? The cards have been played and there are only two possible outcomes: we raise our voices in support of Charlie Hebdo or we are seen to be bowing to the wishes of the attackers – a success for them that will spread the word worldwide that violence can end free speech and more attacks will quickly follow until everyone is afraid to say anything. It’s ironic, really, that this attack has led to the exact opposite of what the attackers intended – partially because we've been left with no other options. We have to stand behind Charlie, or witness the death of freedom.

            So, I guess I don’t have a choice. I am Charlie. I have to be, or I encourage more tragedies.

            I wish that this situation could have been resolved without anyone being hurt or killed. I wish that Charlie Hebdo hadn't become the face of freedom. I wish there was more humour in the world that didn't rely hurting people.

            I wish I lived in a world where I didn't have to support something I don't believe in to support something I do believe in.

Click here to find the charity anthology containing a couple of my short stories.

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If there's any subject you'd like to see me ramble on about, feel free to leave a comment asking me to do so.


  1. Wow, you've packed a lot of deep thought into this blog. I won't comment on everything, but I want to comment on two things. First of all, the attackers were not simply Muslims, but Muslim extremists connected with an extremely violent Islamist organization. We need to be very cautions not to suggest that Islam is a religion that condones such acts; such acts are deplored by the majority of faithful Muslims. Secondly, the point of a satirical paper and its illustrations is not strictly to make us laugh. The hope is that, within the laughter, we are sometimes opened up to some learning, to come face to face with some deep truth we hadn't faced before or to challenge something we had assumed could only be understood one way. The cartoon drawings often illustrate the old adage that a picture speaks a thousand words. A recent example is:
    Having said that, though, if one cartoon drawing speaks a thousand hurtful words... well, I agree with you that we need to use our freedom of speech with care and concern for our neighbours. And we also all need to develop enough sense of humour to not be too quickly angered by our neighbour's humour and satire. There's a fine line. We do not always know when that line has been crossed.
    Of everything you wrote in this blog, I think I was most struck by your final line. That is profound.

    1. Yes, I agree entirely that these were extremists - I didn't even want to mention their religion because of the prejudice that exists, however it was the insult to their religion that prompted the attack. That said, I believe I wrote it in a way that didn't implicate the entire religion.

      As for satire, I'm a fan of it. It does have an important place in our world. From the research I did, however... I feel that this particular company takes it too far. Not that I'm the be-all end-all judge of that, but I think it's important to at least question it.