So much has been said about the recent shootings at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that I hesitate to add my thoughts to the groundswell of support, outrage, and grief over the crime. But I have been dismayed to see that in addition to outrage and grief there has also been criticism of the writers of Charlie Hebdo, and an apparent confusion among some observers between approval, or agreement, with content, and support for freedom of speech.
As writers, I believe that each of us–regardless of how we feel about the content of the magazine, Charlie Hebdo–is Charlie Hebdo (“Je suis Charlie“).
Whether we write fiction, poetry, essay, historical tracts, marketing content, news reportage, user manuals for retail goods, or speeches for politicians, every one of us who writes labors safe in the knowledge–if here in the United States or another nation with a deep commitment to freedom of speech–that his or her right to voice an opinion is protected under the law.
Exceptions, of course, exist to our First Amendment rights, creating confusion for many and interesting opportunities for lawyers. These exceptions range across diverse situations, and include speech that incites violence, contains false statements of fact, makes threats, and so on. But the fact that our right to freedom of speech is not absolute does not change the reality that writers who publish here in the United States enjoy a historically unprecedented freedom to write, say, and share what we please.
This freedom is so ingrained in our expectations and assumptions about our work, so everyday and unexceptional for most of us, that few contemplate how fortunate we are to live during a time and in a place where this freedom exists. We take this freedom for granted. That is, until someone or some event forces us to examine what we mean by freedom of speech and why we so value it–and how quickly our voices can be silenced by government interference, or by actual, or threatened, retribution and violence–and thereby reaffirms our belief in the utter centrality freedom of speech occupies in democracy and freedom.
Disturbingly, however, we have seen in the aftermath of the shootings in Paris how swiftly our notions of freedom of speech become muddied when people are faced with a serious test of this right. Witness the confusion of thought within an essay by David Brooks, long-time writer at The New York Times, who tells us that “We are not Charlie Hebdo”, at least not as long as what we write and subscribe to is not deliberately insulting or offensive: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/09/opinion/david-brooks-i-am-not-charlie-hebdo.html?_r=0
Further, check out the illogic that permeates this blogger’s post on the event, a post that confuses approval of content with right to publish: http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2015/01/in-the-wake-of-charlie-hebdo-free-speech-does-not-mean-freedom-from-criticism/
Jacob Canfield, author of the blog post, finds a good deal published by Charlie Hebdo to be racist. For this, he appears to argue that we should not show support and solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, and that we should not find, in their murders, a renewed sense of commitment within ourselves to freedom of speech.
But, as is nearly always the case, the right to freedom of speech was tested in Paris not by writers asserting balanced, calm, rational and fair viewpoints. Of course not; a test of “nice” speech is not a test at all. Who, after all, does not support nice speech?
No, as has been the case many times before–witness recent debates over “hate speech”, older debates over pornography, the protected right of Nazis to march in 1978 in Skokie, Illinois (a town strongly identified with its Jewish population)–and will be the case countless times hence, our commitment to the First Amendment is being tested by writers who produce, arguably, obnoxious, ugly, provocative, even racist cartoons. Cartoons that many of us would be embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed, to admit to viewing.
But this situation, and only a situation such as this, tests our belief in freedom of speech. The nice stuff, the balanced stuff, the fair stuff is not a test at all. The easy, safe, cream puff stuff produces no contest, no tension, and is a slam dunk when it comes time to access it under the First Amendment.
To be tested in our beliefs in the Bill of Rights, we need to confront not just the good, but the bad and the ugly. And Charlie Hebdo pushes our faces in it, into the bad and the ugly.
So where do you stand?
If you are like me and, I believe, most writers, you already know the answer. It might make you squirm, but it should not: you love your own freedom to write what you please, you enjoy it–even demand it–and expect nothing less.
And you believe that others should have the same. Right?
Even if their content makes you squirm. Especially if their content makes you squirm. And in that way, fellow and sister writers, each and every writer is Charlie Hebdo.