Martyrs, Toons and Free Speech
“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Charlie Hebdo situation and when I decided to jot down my thoughts, it was Orwell that came to mind. Most of us who’ve survived high school English have probably read 1984, and those of us who’ve gone on to college and grad school have probably read and reread his seminal novel more than once. Any time a discussion of Free Speech comes up I immediately think of Orwell’s novel, the main gyst of which is the control of society, specifically through language. Everyone remembers the torture and the dystopian, some would even say Stalinist, vibe, but the really scary part for me was the little cookbook on how to control people. Not through superior firepower, killing and torture, though those become very handy in keeping the population under that control, but in the use of language to change the way people think. Orwell literally wrote the book on doing just that. Terms like “newspeak,” “thought crime,” and “party” are in the lexicon forever because of this novel. And we often reference “Big Brother” on a daily basis in light of the various ways governments spy on us every day.
What does this have to do with Charlie Hebdo? Well, as most people were, I was shocked and horrified at the killing of these folks for something so stupid as a cartoon. Like any Westerner, it’s offensive to think anyone should die over a cartoon, painting or even the most viscious and public verbal attack on a religious figure. The cartoon itself was juvenile at best and not even funny, in my opinion, and if it weren’t for the killings, would probably never been seen or read by most. But two nutjobs, and to call them anything but that is as ridiculous as the cartoon was, is an over-estimation of them. The reaction of “I am Charlie” and the Unity March in Paris, were very encouraging, though. I thought the support shown for those who perished was noble. As is often the case, the best and worst of us only comes around in times of crisis, and the best seemed to have risen to the top. Seemed. The very next day, the same country and city that championed its fallen countrymen as martyrs for Free Speech, arrested a barely know comedian for exercising that very thing, and in the same juvenile and trollish way Hebdo’s cartoon did.
As a result, it’s hard not to see this as an attack on Islamists, Muslims, or whatever you want to call them. Why is it verboten to deny the Holocaust, but ok to make fun of the prophet Muhammed? Do you have to die to be a martyr for Free Speech or can you be one just for going to jail for it? Dieudonne M’bala M’bala is surely an asshole and his jokes aren’t funny. His barb about “I am Amedy Coulibaly” who killed a policewoman and innocent bystanders at a kosher deli, was only about shocking people and getting atttention. He’s a troll, and a coward, in my opinion, as he only posted this on social media to get attention and drive people to go see him in person. But is his right to express himself any less valid than Charlie Hebdo’s? And any less juvenile? Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon was meant to be a slap in the face to any extremist who felt they had the right to deny them their rights to Free Speech. As was Dieudonne’s. They are virtually identical, given they were aimed at the right to Free and unpopular Speech. And though they were tasteless, again my opinion, the point is that both have the right to express them in any form they choose and no religion or state should be allowed to prevent that. And in this case, it casts the French Government as no less invasive to Free Speech than Muslims who would levee a death sentence on someone who draws a cartoon. In essence, they were both trying “to tell people what they didnt’ want to hear.”