It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
The whole world is Charlie today. Everyone is carrying pencils and drawing cartoons and in some cases drawing cartoons of pencils.
It’s hard to know how to react to such a violent and shocking crime as the Charlie Hebdo attack. The magazine itself famously reacted stoically (or belligerently, depending on your viewpoint) when it was firebombed in 2009 by printing more deliberately provocative cartoons of The Prophet Mohammed in a steamy clinch with a CH cartoonist in front of the smouldering wreck of their building.
Their work was brave and unapologetic, and unquestionably a bastion of free speech. It wasn’t very nice, mind you. Puerile at times, banal, biased, unforgiving, unreasonable and completely offensive.
Which means that although every French Newspaper is claiming #JeSuisCharlie today… none of them really is Charlie. I’m certainly not Charlie, because Charlie wasn’t very nice. Here’s the magazine’s front page to mark a silver lining to the death of Micheal Jackson: as a skeleton, he’d finally be white. Pretty crass, huh?
Yesterday, I drafted a tweet that said:
Je ne suis pas, et je n’aime pas Charlie, mais je voudrais défendre jusqu’à la morte son droit à la liberté d’expression. #JeSuisCharlie
and then changed it to:
Je ne suis pas, et je n’aime pas Charlie, mais je voudrais défendre jusqu’à la dernière son droit à la liberté d’expression. #JeSuisCharlie
because I’m a reasonable human being. Because promising to defending things to the death simply ups the rhetoric that’s bandied around, and surely the point of any outcry and protest is to call for a more peaceful resolution of difference.
And that’s the rub of the problem for the chattering classes, the educated, the cosseted, the comparatively wealthy and comfortable. Does our calm tolerance in a situation like the CH massacre make us a weak or strong society?
Today, reasonableness is a tricky thing for the free press too, because the best way to show Charlie Hebdo’s attackers that society is not afraid, that freedom of speech cannot be silenced by masked cowards, that the pen is truly mightier than the Kalashnikov… is to publish the cartoons. That’s what Charlie would have done.
And yet the newspapers haven’t. They’ve all claimed #JeSuisCharlie, but in trite hashtags rather than real actions. Why not publish the cartoons? Well, maybe because they’re afraid that there are still two fanatical gunmen roaming the streets who might knock on their door next. Or maybe because as Stan Lee – the great cartoon writer who conceived The Amazing Spiderman:
With great power comes great responsibility…
When you’re a part of a mainstream Media, it’s not easy to be as controvestial – and frankly, uncaring – as Charlie Hebdo was. Most of Charlie’s front pages were unkind, often unreasonable, always unapologetic. Sometimes they were funny and profound. I found myself in the same trap as the French media when I was changing my Facebook status to #jesuischarlie last night in a moment of solidarity. I considered changing my profile pic to one of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of The Prophet but In the end I chose not to; not because I was scared of the backlash, but because I don’t especially want to offend reasonable Muslims who hold Him in reverence, any more than I would want to use one of the crass cartoons that might be judged equally offensive to Catholics.
So in the end I didn’t publish The Prophet, and the French press didn’t either. So who won? The gunmen? Common decency? Or free speech? I’m honestly not sure.