12 January, 2015

Why I Am Charlie (and you are, too)

So, everyone has been talking about Charlie Hebdo lately, and I said a bit about it on tumblr last week after the debates started getting heated, and now after doing some more reading and thinking, I want to say some more. 

I've never been personally attacked or threatened for my writing, but I know people who have been. It's not pretty. And while I acknowledge there's a very real difference between satirizing people or institutions with power and privilege at their command, and satirizing marginalized groups who are often the targets of random acts of hatred and violence themselves, the bottom line is that committing violence against people for speaking their minds is wrong.

John Scalzi's response to all this fervor hit the nail on the head. In talking about whether or not we agree with or support Charlie Hebdo's ideology, he says:
"my comfort level is about me, not about Charlie Hebdo or anyone else. Free speech, taken as a principle rather than a specific constitutional practice, means everyone has a right to share their ideas, in their own space, no matter how terrible or obnoxious or racist or stupid or inconsequential I or anyone else think they and their ideas are."
Take, for example, the movie The Interview. The queens of comedy Fey and Poehler roasted it a bit last night at the Golden Globes, saying that the controversy forced us all to pretend we wanted to see it-- quite accurately, because I didn't want to, and still don't. But I was deeply unnerved by Sony's capitulating response to North Korea's threats. (Chuck Wendig did the best job of explaining why that should make us all nervous, in case you weren't already.)

As artists, we have a responsibility to make the art we feel compelled to make. It might be snarky, offensive, racist, or just plain crap. But that doesn't mean we should be denied the right to make it, or that violence and murder is an acceptable response to art we don't like.

People have drawn parallels to Rush Limbaugh and asked if we would be defending him so hard if he'd been the one attacked for his hate speech. And as much as I hate to admit it, my answer is yes. I would rather be force-fed live slugs than do anything to support Limbaugh (I'm not even comfortable calling him an artist, but speaking your mind via film/music/graphics/writing and speaking your mind via rancid diatribes on the radio are not distinguishable in the eyes of the law, so the comparison stands). I loathe the man, and I wish he would come down with a case of permanent laryngitis or, you know, a lobotomy. But if someone were to murder him for speaking his tiny, bigoted mind, that would not be okay, and I would absolutely stand up in the street to protest that event.

Like Wendig says in his article about The Interview: protesting the things we find objectionable is part of social discourse. Threatening or enacting violence upon people for making or looking at art is fucked up and always, always wrong.

So yeah, #jesuischarlie. But whether you use the hashtag or not, you are Charlie too-- because you click links on Facebook, because you look at videos on YouTube, because you're reading this blog. 

Because if murder as a response to art is okay, then that means we're giving governments and terrorist groups the power to decide what art is okay to make and what isn't. And if we go there, pretty soon the line between those who make the art and those who consume it is going to blur, and that's the start of a slippery slide. 

It's simple: either free speech is protected or it isn't. If people are allowed to make films like Selma and Pride, to write Watchmen and put a gay wedding on the cover of an X-Men comic, then people are also allowed to draw racist cartoons and make terrible movies about assassinating Kim Jong Il and shout on the radio about the dangerous plague of gays in America. 

We don't have to agree with Charlie Hebdo. We don't have to support their art or validate their points of view. But we can't lose sight of the fact that last week two men took 12 innocent lives because they didn't like some cartoons. And if we don't make it clear that we will not be silenced by terror, the person who uses guns as their first line of social discourse will never have any reason to put down the gun and try picking up a pencil instead.


  1. Great article Em. Spot on.

    You may have seen this already, but Neil Gaiman wrote on this topic (different event obviously) a few years ago. It's extremely relevant now though: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/12/why-defend-freedom-of-icky-speech.html

    The whole article is great, but I especially liked these:

    "the law is a big blunt instrument that makes no fine distinctions, and because you only realise how wonderful absolute freedom of speech is the day you lose it."

    "You can say what you like, write what you like, and know that the remedy to someone saying or writing or showing something that offends you is not to read it, or to speak out against it."

    "Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you're going to have to stand up for stuff you don't believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don't, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person's obscenity is another person's art.

    Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost."

    1. I don't actually know if I've read that Gaiman article before, thanks for the link! He really nails it-- free speech benefits everyone, censorship hurts everyone. The gunmen weren't holding a discourse with the Charlie Hebdo artists, they were violently and brutally censoring them. It's like blowing up a shoe store because they sold you a pair of shoes that gave you a blister-- not a sane or appropriate response, regardless of how ugly the shoes were.

      Thanks for reading & commenting! <3