Fresh Eyes: Free speech over cultural sensitivity

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Joshua Deatonby Joshua Deaton

Jean Cabut (known as Cabu) was one of the cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo recently murdered by radical Islamists for depicting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Cabu was an ally of immigrants, sharply satirizing the racism of anti-immigrant sentiment in France. One of his most well known characters was a caricature of a lazy and racist Frenchman. Cabu used his humor to challenge racial profiling, to ridicule anti-immigrant fearmongering by unsympathetically portraying right-wing French politicians, and to highlight how people of color in France are disproportionately brutalized by police riot-control measures.

And yet many local liberals (including journalists for Triad City Beat) have refused to express solidarity with the slain victims of Charlie Hebdo. Cabu was one of those victims. But many of my liberal comrades insist on condemning both the murder of the cartoonists and the offensiveness of the cartoons in the very same breath. This seems to me an insulting moral equivalence, and contrary to our shared liberal values.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Jordan Green of Triad City Beat wrote: “I don’t feel solidarity as a journalist with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The heinous and deplorable attacks on them have conferred a nobility that their work didn’t have before.”

As liberals, we generally understand why it is wrong to critically consider the clothing choice of a rape victim in the context of condemning the act of sexual violence, or to discuss the social behavior of black men slain by police in the context of condemning police brutality that disproportionately affects people of color. It’s wrong because it implies shared blame for unjustified violence. And for that very same reason it should be as equally insulting to consider the satirical value of the work of the slain cartoonists in the context of condemning their murder.

If Jordan’s response to an attack on a mosque was, “This heinous and deplorable attack has conferred a nobility that their patriarchal religious ideology didn’t have before,” I would be just as critical. As much as I dislike all the Abrahamic faiths, the freedom to practice your religion should be as protected as the freedom to criticize your religion. We liberals ought to be unyielding in our defense of those individuals who wish to practice Islam or to mock it. I agree with Jordan when he insists that “it’s okay” to object to the cartoons, just as “it’s okay” to object to a particular religion.

I also object to the implication that “Muslims” (generalized) need their sensitivities protected in a way that no other group apparently requires. As demonstrated in this country with the cartoon “South Park,” we can crudely satirize all faiths, political positions and even historic atrocities like the Holocaust (recall the “Passion of the Jew” episode), but Islam is off the table. You can urinate on a crucifix, depict the pope diddling children, and joke about genocide… But draw the Prophet Muhammad? Either we’re afraid of a violent reaction (ceding our liberty to the terrorists’ terms) or we’re stereotyping the broader Muslim community as monolithically too immature or delicate to simply laugh at or ignore mere cartoons.

In our self-censorship, we are not only stereotyping all Muslims as overly sensitive but also abandoning individuals within Muslim communities that could use liberal allies (like LGBT youth struggling with alienation and hostility within a conservative religious culture, feminists who reject gender segregation in mosques, etc.). But just as the right wing in America is often blinded by its support for all things pro-America, even when their patriotism violates core conservative values, so too the left seems unable to comment on the West unless it is in the form of condemnation. This seems true for my liberal comrades even if it means equivocating when condemning a massacre of nonviolent (liberal) cartoonists and committing ourselves to an uncritical posture toward a generally conservative and patriarchal religious tradition.

There should not be a religious test to determine which victims of unjustified violence we will stand with in solidarity. By valuing human rights, I support the right of men and women to choose Islam, and to mock Islam. By valuing Muslims as fellow humans, I refuse to shield them from our differences of opinion (as if we had nothing to offer one another). To self-censor would be to treat my Muslim brothers and sisters as infants or threats.

#JeSuisCharlie.

Joshua Deaton has been active in the local secular humanist and atheist movement since 2007. He is one of the founding members of UNCG Atheists, Agnostics & Skeptics.

  • Here! Here!

  • Doug Pike

    Thank God someone called City Beat out on their cowardice. A religion that treats women as chattel deserves to be mocked incessantly (as all irrational ideas should) everyday, in every newspaper. Triad City Beat is so bunk.

    • Observer

      Let’s hope we all never live in a country that is so weak internally to allow such an atrocity on our own press at whatever level, no matter the strange lens that they view freedom and tolerance of opinion, depending.
      “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
      Yeah, it’s French, amazingly.

  • Precisely, thank you for doing the homework and thinking this through. I find it hypocritical and dishonest for someone to commemorate the shooting victims of Nov. 3 (and they should be commemorated), yet suggest that the Parisian journalists somehow contributed to their own deaths because of something they said.

    • Jordan Green

      Careful, Lorraine. We might ask you to write a Fresh Eyes.

      • Brian Clarey

        We already have.

  • This article by Noam Chomsky may also interest folks who are reading up on this subject: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/19/opinion/charlie-hebdo-noam-chomsky/

    • jndeaton

      It may be of interest to contrast Chomsky’s reaction to the attack on Charlie Hebdo with his uncompromising defense of free speech in the Faurisson Affair. Both controversies center around those attempting to limit the freedom of speech in France. Charlie Hebdo was attacked (cartoonists murdered) for mocking the prophet of Islam. Faurisson was imprisoned by the state for denying the use of gas chambers in the Holocaust. In defense of Faurisson’s right to freedom of speech, Chomsky quoted Voltaire approvingly, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

      And to be fair, Chomsky has always been more critical of the (misuse) of state power rather than the barbarism of non-state actors. And I understand his reason: As a democratic society, we are simply more culpable for our own failures/hypocrisies.

      Nonetheless, it’s still an interesting contrast of reactions from the sage of the left. For those who haven’t followed Chomsky, here are a couple links to catch you up on the Faurisson Affair:
      http://youtu.be/12OYtO3M7xI
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faurisson_affair