An attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo took 17 lives by the time all the smoke cleared, not the bloodiest uprising in French history but certainly the deadliest act of terrorism in that country in 50 years.
They don’t have a First Amendment in France, but they do have freedom of speech — a tradition that goes back roughly to the time of the guillotine. And they have a free press, too, under a law amended in the 1970s that exempted speech inciting hatred, racism, sexual discrimination, Holocaust denial and a few other equally loathsome categories from the shield.
It’s not exactly the same as in this country, where our speech seems to have more protections, though none of us are allowed to shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
Charlie Hebdo is one of the publications that tests France’s free-speech laws, particularly in attacks against adherents of Islam, who constitute as much as 10 percent of that country’s population. The numbers are inexact because the French government is prohibited from asking any of its citizens about their religion — how’s that for separation of church and state?
It’s inherently risky to weigh in on this issue specifically because of these differences in law and culture, history and demographics. Context is everything, but all we know is what we’ve seen.
CH is like Mad magazine, but with a political bent and written by bigots. So acerbic is its content that its slogan, Bête et méchant, which translates into “Dumb and nasty,” became an everyday expression in French culture. Anti-semitism, the demonization of Muslims, crude depictions of naked people and butthole jokes are all part of the program.
We’d never defend terrorist action or the use of a gun as a means of editorial feedback. But unlike perpetrators of a new meme making the rounds on social media, we are not Charlie Hebdo, whose sole mission, it seems, was to provoke.
Understand, provocation should be incorporated into the mission of every good newspaper. But many of the cartoons published regularly in Charlie Hebdo seem designed to induce provocation simply for its own sake.
With a newspaper, that’s one way to go — assuming that the people you’re provoking will respond within the boundaries of the law.
This is as good a time as any to remember that though our speech may be protected, the consequences of that speech are not.
As we see it, there’s a responsibility that comes with the megaphone that is a weekly newspaper, one that goes beyond following the letter of the law. Gratuitous disrespect, reckless provocation and xenophobia are not the highest use of the megaphone.
Newspapers are supposed to provoke, but they’re also supposed to make people smarter. Charlie Hebdo seems to have sacrificed one for the other.