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Jan. 21, 2015

Am I Charlie?

by Divya Rajagopal, Managing Editor
Frenchman Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, once said, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." It is this concept that was deep-rooted in the hearts of the Parisians and the people of the world as they rallied behind France after the shooting at Charlie Hebdo on January 7.

The massacre, which left 12 people dead, was in retaliation to the newspaper's history of satirical portrayals of Muhammad, some of which featured nude cartoons of the prophet. In 2011, the magazine published a front-page caricature of the Islamic prophet saying, "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter." A series of attacks followed in 2011 and in 2012; however, the magazine did not back down in publishing its inflammatory material.
Memorials have sprung up commemorating the losses of the Charlie Hebdo staff. Courtesy of International Business Times
Memorials have sprung up commemorating the losses of the Charlie Hebdo staff.

In the attack on Jan. 7, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi forced their way into Charlie Hebdo's newsroom and opened fire. They then asked for and murdered Stephane Charbonnier, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, as well as three other members of the editorial staff. The gunmen were pursued by the police in what became a two-day manhunt. On the morning of Jan. 9, the two men were killed. Read the full story here.

Understandably, the attack shocked and frightened many world leaders and politicians, who must now continue to find ways to ensure the rights of the citizens while preventing violent outbreaks. In the wake of the shooting, some politicians are vying for more Internet censorship and surveillance to prevent terrorism. These ministers want Internet service providers to take down online content "that aims to incite hatred and terror." The initiatives are a continuation of the strict measures limiting freedom of speech and expression already in place in Europe. The French and German governments, for example, have forced Internet firms like Yahoo and Twitter to remove Nazi propaganda. There are many benefits to monitoring suspicious Internet activity, especially since terrorist groups such as ISIS recruit online worldwide. However, it is important to make sure that such censorship does not infringe upon human rights to self-expression.

So what does this mean for the politically charged "Je suis Charlie" and its equally powerful spin-offs such as "Ich bin Charlie" and "Yo soy Charlie"? Well, it signals that despite what political leaders claim, and their evident display of support in the march, they are still uncomfortable with the left-wing media's religious mocking. Understandably, politicians want to take any and all measures to prevent the loss of more lives, including applying restrictive measures on what is published by the media in print and online.

A movement against the newspaper's politically offensive 'satire' supports their sentiments. In the aftermath of the shooting, some have felt uneasy about the newspaper's publishing of inflammatory and racist images, and have started using the "I am not Charlie" hashtag to express their apprehension. The newspaper has built a reputation for such images, portraying a black government minister as a monkey and depicting many controversial images of the Islamic faith. Indeed, 'satire' may be an understatement for what the newspaper presents. Political satire usually refers to a type of mockery with a direct motive: the desire to ridicule some of the absurdities of politics or society in order to provide audiences with a fresh perspective. However, the so-called 'satirical' caricatures published by Hebdo seem to foster some of these absurdities and further polarize societal prejudices. In the field of political satire there is an implicit barrier between satire and browbeating, between free speech and libelous hate: a barrier that Hebdo crossed a long time ago.
In Paris, the people marched in support of the Charlie Hebdo staff. Courtesy of Time Magazine
In Paris, the people marched in support of the Charlie Hebdo staff.

Charlie Hebdo went too far in its ridiculing. However, that does not mean that the journalists for the publication who died that day were not martyrs. They stood for what they believed in: the freedom of the press, even if that vision was marred by the nature of their publishing. They died for their views, and their lives must be remembered.

This tragedy presents European governments with a difficult task: how can they mitigate the unrest in the wake of the shooting, and, at the same time, find ways to prevent future massacres? Governments should be careful in their initiatives and make sure that it does not lead to growing blanket censorship; once the process of preventing harmful material starts, it can be difficult to draw the line between what is potentially harmful and what is not.

Voltaire would not have asked political leaders, or anyone, to agree with the sentiments issued by such publications. Hebdo's cartoons were lewd and offensive. However, he would have urged them to be careful when dealing with the rights of the press and the people to express themselves. Governments should not 'defend to the death' the rights of terrorist or hate-groups to publish whatever violent and harmful posts that they wish. They must, however, uphold a distinctive barrier between protective censorship and infringement of freedom of speech, and not cross it.

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  • Charlie Hebdo on January 22, 2015 at 5:37 PM
    I don't think the nature of their magazine marred the cause at all. I have seen the cartoons. I think they're in horrible taste. No one is pretending this magazine is full of satirical genius; it's actually pretty trashy. But it doesn't matter. There is no "protective censorship"; where would we end? (by the by, we already have restrictions on free speech, fighting words, for instance). Drawings of Muhammad may be offensive to some. So, let them be offended. Publishing caricatures depicting black-people as monkeys is abhorrent. I will refrain from buying magazines which do such things, I will boycott them; but if a government attempts to silence them, you can bet I will fight my hardest to stop that. It's the same reason we defend the Westboro Baptists. They're idiots, but they're idiots in a country that respects free speech (mostly). I can't believe how misguided this article is. Can't you see? This movement would defend the right of the anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters to burn the magazine too! We shouldn't be telling people to hold their tongues, lest someone loses it and tries to murder them. In a world of complete free speech, this problem wouldn't exist because it wouldn't be taboo to make inflammatory statements. What this article proposes would be the worst possible approach to deal with terrorists; would we stand down once more if it happened with another image deemed offensive? Where would we end?
    • Agreed on January 23, 2015 at 3:47 PM
      Totally agree! We cannot allow zealots to dictate the terms of our speech. To some degree, we have. Imagine if a musical similar to "The Book of Mormon" was made about Islam. It would never be accepted. When groups threaten violence if some form of speech is practiced, it is that exact time when the speech must be practiced. We have to show these freedom suppressing thugs that they cannot dictate our speech!
  • Charb on January 29, 2015 at 11:59 PM
    What even is this article? You labeled it "Things to think about in the wake of the Parisian massacre" and after having led off with the voltaire quote and a massive digression, you proceed to define satire and the objective bounds of free speech according to your tastes, and place Charlie Hebdo outside of them. From there, you make an unfounded slippery slope statement, and close by saying that a "distinctive barrier" must be upheld. First, and foremost, wouldn't your previous paragraph imply the legal creation of that boundary is the beginning of that slippery slope? Second, Charlie Hebdo is a brand of satire that doesn't really exist in the US, so I can partially understand the rapidity and ease with which you label the paper hate-speech, but it's really not. They aren't hate speech, they just rip on everyone equally (and in ways those not exposed to french news), and to an absurd degree. Usually their work is tawdry, but also incredibly sarcastic. If you actually looked up the comic you cited, depicting the minister as a monkey, you'd have noticed the red/blue flame next to her, the symbol of the FN (the french equivalent of the tea party, with a fair bit of nationalistic anti-immigrant "pride" thrown in) who made incredibly racist statements comparing her to a monkey, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon is in fact an allusion to this, and is labeled with a caption that mocks their use of racism as a recruiting tactic. Even when the comics don't have this sort of complexity, they're still evenly distributed between all ethnicities, parties, and any other groups available to mock. This sort of humor came about as a sort of post-revolution compensation for previous censorship, and Charlie Hebdo is simply a modern implementation of it. Furthermore, I really dislike your statements that the paper crossed some objective line, and that if they could potentially "polarize social prejudices" they should restrain themselves, or be restrained. Preservation of absolute free speech, save for (actual) libel must be preserved at all costs, and any self or external restraint aiming to control it for the sake of political correctness is complete idiocy that would actually lead down your slippery slope. As well as this, I truly believe Charlie Hebdo is less "polariz[ing of] social prejudices" than MSNBC or Fox News is, and find it amusing that you don't make any reference to american news sources. Finally, I think there's something supremely ironic about the fact that a newspaper so dedicated to the freedom of speech/press that it nearly bankrupts itself each month in order to remain free of censorship is effectively calling for legal censorship of another such newspaper.
    Please do some light research before writing, and editing afterwards.
    Also, Hebdo means weekly, you can't really use it as the name of the paper, it's like calling the NYT "Times", but far more ambiguous and strange.
  • ... on February 17, 2015 at 3:22 PM
    Honestly, this article is really messed up. 1) Your point is so unclear. Nobody knows what you're trying to say. Stop with the flowery language and clear up your mind. 2) It's these stories that make SCO seem like they are trying too hard to conform to the mainstream media - terrible.
  • Tec on July 9, 2015 at 8:21 PM
    ur title sucks
  • Nice job. on November 7, 2015 at 8:12 PM
    these comments are way mean. you write beautifully! The title is a little confusing, but the article seems pretty straight forward, although your argument is not as apparent. It's a broad topic. Nice take on it. The thing about Charlie Hebdo, I'd like to say, is that they are not heroes. It's awful about their deaths of course, but when they thought they were taking on terrorist groups- they were actually attacking a religion. It was like they were calling all of Muslims terrorists. I came to this article based on a different article on this website and it was saying how the media fosters Islamophobia- well that's kind of what they did. Shouldn't have died doing that of course, but that needs to be recognized.
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