Everything was very clear on the morning of January 7, 2015. I had woken up and immediately scrolled through my iPhone, pondering briefly, “How did Jimmy Fallon miss his chance with Nicole Kidman?” and “I wonder what’s Reason 8 of 22 Reasons You Should Do CrossFit Instead of Pilates,” and “Who is Charlie Hebdo?” The headlines seemed answer enough: Twelve people killed at a French satirical newspaper by men who appear to be terrorists. My impulse of frustration and exasperation was a foregone conclusion: Here we go again. But something was missing. I was still under-informed and hadn’t developed conviction enough to declare the hashtag du jour. I had to learn more. I zoomed past the links of websites that are hardly more than headlines and soundbites – and god/God/Buddha/Allah/Vishnu/Hitchens forbid a reductive 13 Ways To Not Let Them Win – and dove into a more substantial assessment from a reputable source, “The Attack On Charlie Hebdo” by Amy Davidson in The New Yorker. I would learn about the bravery and tenacity of Charlie Hebdo, champions of the values that I enjoy and endorse as a citizen based in a Western society. It seemed so clear: Freedom of speech is right; attacking that freedom is wrong. Clearly, I should be joining my fellow people in the streets with pencil and placard in hand. But something didn’t feel right.
Ten hours later at night I would clarify my discomfort. Rather, my moral conflict became muddier, but I was able to discern why I hadn’t joined my fellow liberal artists and progressive intellectuals and basically anyone from anywhere on the political, social, cultural, economic, professional, geographic spectrum who believe in our fundamental right to freedom of speech. I would finally read a perspective that challenged the Western-media-friendly, Western-politically-correct stance that the cartoons represent valiance and liberty. More importantly, I would finally see an array of the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. “In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism” by Jacob Canfield in The Hooded Utilitarian was the first article I would read that is critical of Charlie Hebdo’s “history of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia.” Canfield elucidated for me how Charlie Hebdo could be considered “White men punching down” on the oppressed and marginalised Muslim population of France; the ruling class enforces the status quo by beating down the already beaten underclass with sustained discrimination. In short, Canfield calls Charlie Hebdo's satire racist, and I cannot say I disagree. The clarity I found from Canfield’s article can be distilled from his pithy summation: “Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. Fuck those cartoons.”
I am not religious. Perhaps I am not atheistic enough because I have some cosmic sense that I shouldn’t talk ill of the dead, that perhaps some respect for the slain will keep my karma in good standing. And I do not have ill will against the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I would like to believe that the staff are not xenophobes or racists or homophobes. I am comfortable in believing that they are simply, sincerely, fiercely upholding the values of freedom that my (not everyone’s) society deems Good. For the slain people of this attack I feel nothing but condolence and sympathy and, yes, anger. For the work of Charlie Hebdo, I feel discomfort.
Like the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I fiercely uphold freedom of speech. But not unquestionably. Not without inquiry. Not without investigation or consideration for others. Respect is not censorship. Since this attack and the general state of our world revolve around extremism, let us not forget that my society considers certain extreme expressions to be a hate crime. I am not accusing anyone related to Charlie Hebdo of committing a crime. I am offering a thought, a reminder that my society at large will find “Kill Chinks! Chinks go home!” to be punishable by prosecution. However, I do not believe anyone publishing that repugnant statement or any reprehensible image should be killed.
To illustrate my reactions to the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, it would be best for me to show their cartoons. I will not. You can find them easily elsewhere. I am not comfortable posting images of Mohammed, let alone images of him on all fours with his testicles hanging or posing for Jean-Luc Godard porn-style asking about his ass. Does that make me a coward? I don’t care. What I care about is you asking me why I refuse. Aside from this nagging thing called respect that might get my card yanked from the Atheists Club, my reason to you would be a question: What will it achieve? I agree that it takes a vast amount of stubborn courage – a type of courage that I do not possess – to continually, for decades, offend everybody. I commend Charlie Hebdo for their equal opportunity offence. But I also wonder if they haven’t already made their point. I wonder if extremist terrorists haven’t already made their point. Conviction is commendable; arrogance is condemnable.
If Charlie Hebdo’s raison d'être is to test the extremities of freedom, to practice the very concept of freedom and break through any barriers to freedom, I believe they have done that. If the publication aims to provoke thought and discourse, I believe they have done that, but the same effect can be achieved without provoking violence or attacking people in a manner that provokes further attack. There are many ways to get the same point across.
Upon reading Canfield’s article my moral stance was complicated by my own experience with offence. In October, 2014, the Toronto Sun published a cartoon by Andy Donato depicting Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow riding on the coattails of her late husband, the politician Jack Layton. Chow represents a leftist sensibility, so in the cartoon, her communist garb could be considered devoid of racial sentiment and speak solely about political dress, but let’s be honest: It’s a Maoist suit. “Because I am Chinese-Canadian, I must be a communist and have slanted eyes and glasses … and since I am a woman, I must be inferior and therefore not good enough for the job of the mayor so I must rely on my deceased husband so it’s both racist and sexist,” Chow said. Support for her and backlash against the cartoon were proclaimed throughout Toronto and Canada because in my Western society we do not put up with racism and sexism. I myself was offended, acutely so because I am Chinese-Canadian. Further, I abhor racism and sexism. Furthermore, I was voting for Olivia Chow as I have for every single election in which I was able to vote for her. What did I do about the cartoon? Nothing. Why did I do nothing? Because I decided to let freedom of speech prevail. Perhaps I committed an act of hypocrisy. Perhaps I committed an act of conviction.
Some of the people who declared the cartoon of Chow to be wrong are the same people declaring freedom of speech to be right. How am I so sure? Because I am one of them. The people around the world holding up pencils and placards should do what they’re doing. Do it. I agree with what you are trying to say. But I cannot bring myself to declare that hashtag because this “new normal” is far too complex to be reduced to a tweetable slogan. I understand that “Charlie” represents two things: Charlie Hebdo the publication, and human rights. I stand for human rights. I stand for Charlie Hebdo’s spirit of free speech. But I cannot sincerely, patently stand for every word or image published in that newspaper. The fact that I could be mistaken for supporting a publication that is deemed by many as racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, extremist and other evils that my society is trying to rid… That would be irresponsible of me. If you believe you are Charlie, and know why you are Charlie, then please continue. I support you. But if you have doubts or are under-informed, or do not feel clear enough yet to proliferate that hashtag, then there are many ways to show your support for human rights and free speech, your condemnation of violence and suppression. There are many ways to get your point across without misinterpretation. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. In the spirit of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I would defend to the death our right to say it. But only after asking ourselves, “What are we saying and how?”