On the morning of Jan. 7, two Islamist gunmen opened fire on the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in Paris. Twelve people were killed – five cartoonists, an economist, two editors, one guest, one maintenance worker and two police officers. Eleven others were wounded. The killing of these 12 people took mere minutes, and then “all of a sudden there was silence,” according to one of the survivors. And in that silence, the remaining survivors in the office looked around at their dead co-workers. Those short moments of utter tragedy and terror will last forever, frozen in time.
Charlie Hebdo is a weekly French satirical magazine. Subject matter consists of religion, politics and culture. Its content is irreverent and strongly laced with nonconformist, atheist and secular principles. For this reason, 12 people were shot and killed. For creative expression, 12 families will never see their loved ones again. For controversial cartoons published of Muhammad, the whole world poignantly feels the loss of 12 people who did not deserve to die, who woke up on the morning of Jan. 7 and went to work only to be brutally robbed of their lives in exchange for some radical terrorist victory. How heroic.
Freedom of the press and freedom of speech laws have spurred controversy since the dawn of the written word. The First Amendment to the Constitution gives Americans the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship from the government. We can write what we want to write and make the art we want to make without fear of government intervention or punishment. This right of ours is highly valued, as demonstrated in the wave of strong, passionate reactions to Charlie Hebdo. The whole nation erupted in a frenzy of support for the magazine. “I Am Charlie,” we said.
But are we Charlie? Legally, no one can keep us from voicing our opinions, but voices are silenced by society every single day. The question of free speech has less to do with the law and more to do with us, with our socially constructed guidelines that spell out what is appropriate to do, say, write and make–and what is simply not. The shooting at Charlie Hebdo boils down to a few radical Islamists taking offense to the caricatures of Muhammad and murdering the creators as a response to their disapproval. In this case, the most extreme of measures was taken, but every day more minor forms of this violence against free speech occur.
A professor at the University of Illinois was fired for teaching the Roman Catholic view of homosexuality. At the University of Kansas, a professor was suspended for an opinionated tweet directed against the National Rifle Association. These are examples of someone taking offense to another’s beliefs or viewpoints and as a result, doing everything in his power to subdue the unwelcome voices. The cartoons of Muhammad printed in Charlie Hebdo offended the Islamist terrorists and in order to subdue those unwelcome voices, they destroyed them. We are mortified by the slaughter of the writers and editors, but we are a little too quick to take up arms over the protection and right to creative expression when in our country today. Tolerance of unpopular, offensive or different opinions is hard to come by. We are legally tolerant while simultaneously discriminant.
Satirists and provocateurs do not exactly rank high on the social ladder in America. We tend to look at them through a foggy lense to keep them at a comfortable distance. They tear down all the visages, reduce us to our weaknesses and deliberately pick apart humanity in an attempt to better it. We do not understand their blatant disregard of our speech codes. How dare they disrupt our carefully crafted peace of mind? We are celebrating the satirists of Charlie Hebdo as martyrs for creative expression but we still silence those of our own society. A magazine like Charlie Hebdo would arguably not be tolerated in America today. Its content is directly irreverent with no regard for speech codes. It is offensive. But does that really matter?
Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is the sole speech code by which we should abide. And while we do that, satirists and provocateurs should practice prudence. If we can somehow achieve this delicate balance, somewhere suspended between tolerance and prudence, then we may be able to stomp out socially created speech codes and strangled, censored conversations.
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo is horrifying. It is a lesson and an all too real reminder that things must change, that we must change. A pencil is not a weapon of mass destruction and a gun does not symbolize bravery. Bravery is putting a pencil to paper and making a statement – spreading words, ideas and voices that refuse to be oppressed. Heroism is the artist who does not hear the oppressor, the one whose words make more noise than gunfire. No one wants to live in world where writers and artists have to fear for their lives in exchange for their work. Our voices will not be subdued.
This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Yard.