Charlie Hebdo: Art as a Deadly Weapon

I’m not someone who identifies with the hashtag #IAmCharlie. Does this make me a proponent of violent Islamic extremists? A denouncer of free speech and freedom of the press? Absolutely not. The attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo was senseless, cruel, and completely horrific. I do not nor will I ever support violence of any kind. Furthermore, I believe that censorship of any kind is a dangerous, slippery slope. All this being said, I do have a few nagging thoughts on the issue.

First of all – the hashtag – let me draw a comparison. In 2013, the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko created a viral frenzy on the web, prompting supporters to hashtag #IAmMargaretMary. Vojtko was an adjunct instructor at Duquesne University whose sudden death and lack of job security and medical benefits created a heated dialogue about the realities of adjunct instructors across the United States who, despite their credentials, often do not have job security, benefits, or a liveable wage. Margaret Mary Vojtko became a martyr for an already on-going debate in higher education, and for me personally as a college educator at the instructor level, this story hit home in a lot of ways. I proudly touted #IAmMargaretMary on my twitter because I felt this matter deeply echoed concerns of my own. For me, saying #I-Am-Margaret-Mary meant 1) I felt strongly about the issue of adjunct instructors in higher education 2) I am literally like Margaret Mary because I am also an instructor at a university.

However, there was always a logical problem with using this hashtag with the first person and copula verb because, metaphysically speaking, I was not literally Margaret Mary Vojtko. Like all hashtags, however, using #IAmMargaretMary created a dialogue over social media for people to voice their support and concerns. I personally felt that 1) the cause was a worthy one 2) that I had enough in common with Vojtko and 3) that I supported every angle of the debate enough to join in on this popularized hashtag.

However, for me, the same is not true of #IAmCharlie or #IAmCharlieHebdo. Why not simply #Charlie or #CharlieHebdo or #ISupportFreedomofthePress? Again, perhaps I’m a stickler for linguistic accuracy. I am not the publication Charlie Hebdo, so why use that phrasing? But, more meaningful to this debate is while I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish freely, I don’t support a lot of what they publish. In my mind, hashtagging #IAmCharlie, to some extent, carries with it that you not only support freedom of the press and the staff of Charlie Hebdo but there’s the denotation that you also support the content of the magazine, as well.

Not sure what they publish? Here’s a link to some of their content translated. It’s a truth widely acknowledged that many Muslims believe that it is forbidden to depict the Prophet Muhammad, so you can imagine how these images would anger some Muslim conservatives or extremists. But Islam isn’t the only religion mocked by this publication.

A few days ago, I posted the article “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” by David Brooks on my Facebook page to much debate. But for me one part of Brooks’s article is absolutely true: “The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in…Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.”

It’s not like I can’t take a joke. Most people who know me know that I have a very crude sense of humor. I would be a complete hypocrite to laugh at the things I laugh at and then criticize Charlie Hebdo. And yet, I don’t in private or in public mock religions that aren’t my own. I also don’t make a living mocking sacredly held beliefs and institutions. For me, the bottom-line is this, while I believe the publication had a right to publish what they wanted to publish, if I had been on that staff (not that I would ever work for such a publication), I would have been wearing a bullet proof vest under my clothes for years. Should this be the case? Should artists and writers have to fear for their lives? Of course not. But we aren’t going to change the minds of militant Islamists or any religion’s extremists anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, saying or showing whatever you want to will carry with it the risk of offending someone, perhaps offending to the point of violence. They call it risky because risks are involved.

Which leads me to my next point… was it a good idea for Charlie Hebdo to publish yet another depiction of Muhammad on their most recent issue? Part of me says yes – as a way to show that writers or artists will not give into fear or intimidation. Part of me says yes, but part of me asks if this publication is worth the potential for more innocent lives to be lost. Two days ago, it was reported in the New York Times that tensions were heightening in Muslim groups around the world following the release of the most recent issue. Just hours ago, riots in Pakistan and Niger have left innocent people dead. So now, as a result of publishing the Prophet Muhammad on yet another cover, not only are the twelve staff members of the publication dead, but people are continuing to die. So tell me this… who is profiting from Charlie Hebdo’s political stand? What group of people profit when the issue spans multiple countries each with different laws regarding freedom of the press? Is it a global stand against terrorism? If so, I’d prefer Charlie Hebdo to not be leading the cause.

Even one of Charlie Hebdo’s co-founders seems to disagree with the magazine’s latest depiction of Prophet Mohammad. See more on that here.

Let me put it this way, if I thought global censorship and freedom of the press were truly at stake here, I’d pick up my large pencil-weapons and march into battle. But I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I think in some countries where freedom of the press is enjoyed that freedom is so free that anything (responsible and true or not) can be published, yet very little is happening to teach the masses how to interpret what they are exposed to – there are whole communities of people in the United States and in other countries who think that anything they see or read on the internet or television is truth… in the same way, perhaps, that extremists weren’t able to overlook the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as gross, tasteless satire.

By continuing to publish the images that created the problem, this publication (and those who support it) are waving a flag for artistic expression and freedom to speak and publish, but are they really doing anything to tangibly help anyone? All I see is that more people are dying. Are they doing anything to make the world safer or better or are they just calling the bluff of the bully on the playground? Art has long since been a medium for calling out prejudice and injustice, but in this case, art is a deadly weapon, and if Charlie Hebdo continues to publish Muhammad on or in their publication, more lives will likely be lost. If they choose this path and even more people die, then they are no better than the extremists who stormed into their office wielding guns.

5 Comments on “Charlie Hebdo: Art as a Deadly Weapon”

      • Many people who I’ve discussed this issue with do not like that I’m putting any of the responsibly on Charlie Hebdo. They feel that the terrorists chose to be offended and carried out the murders, so, to them, the terrorists are the only ones to blame. But I’m not so sure about this. I’m sure that the staff at Charlie Hebdo never intended for this to happen, but now that it’s created such tension and even more deaths in the past two days, to me, if they continue to publish the content, it’s not a freedom of the press concern (because they are free to publish what they want) but an ethical concern.

      • Well said. I think it has to do with the realisation that neither art, freedom of speech,satire, or whatever is free from limitations. Why else we have that old saying that my liberty ends where the liberty of the other person starts?

        In my discussions over here I meet the same phenomenon as you: people do not differentiate; either because this might be beyond their comprehension, or because they don’t want to. In the end it would mean to stop howling/run with the wolves/pack (not sure what might be the correct term in English 🙂 ), and that’s something people seem to be frightened of.

        Tinking in black and white is so much, much easier …

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