Buried Leads, Free Speech, and No Je Suis Charlie for me (please)

Let me start out by saying that as beautiful as it can be, when we see real moments of solidarity in society, we should always question who it is that we are aligning ourselves to.  In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, there was a spontaneous outpouring of “Je Suis Charlie.”  People who had never heard of the magazine before were horrified that anyone would ever be killed just for expressing an opinion, which I have to say I agree with.  No one should ever be killed just because someone else disagrees with them.

But people also shouldn’t be killed for things like wanting an education or simply living somewhere where someone else wants to be.  A girl bomber has killed 19 people in Nigeria recently, sparking suspicions that the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year may be being abused and turned extremist.  This, on top of a spat of recent killings led by Boko Haram in a land grab that gives them control of a much larger territory (the images are horrifying).  Boko Haram has already been described by the Nigerian government as intractable and too in control of the land they already had.  As they continue to make land grabs, kill villagers, and steal young girls (a practice that they haven’t given up, even after the #bringbackourgirls tag trended on Twitter) the situation becomes more and more corrupt and resistant to change.

Locals reported that the Boko Haram militants were unscrupulously killing everyone they could find just to incite horror, shooting a pregnant woman who was already in labor.  Can you even imagine being that woman, dying knowing that your child was already dead inside you, just hours after preparing yourself to hold that child for the first time?

The news of the Nigerian massacre, which could be as little as 200 or as many as 3000 dead in just a few days, coming on the heels of Je Suis Charlie raises many important questions.  The first would be why, as these innocent people were killed just for living in the wrong place, was the 24 hour news cycle more concerned with talking about whether or not Obama had betrayed the American public’s trust by not going to the 3.7 million man march for free speech in France?

The question of whether Obama SHOULD have gone to the march raises several important questions.  The first is if the symbolic defense of free speech really should have such a pull for us, as a nation.  We do love free speech here, even more than France, which famously has several restrictions on what people can publish.  Charlie Hebdo has quite famously had to defend themselves in court when their comics had been challenged as hate speech, even being told by the French government that they were overstepping their bounds and should print less offensive of images.  Charlie Hebdo’s defense has been that no one would possibly take them seriously as a news magazine and they are strictly comedic- but in France, even that defense can be problematic.

So, if Obama were to go to France, I would hope it would be to talk about the complicated issue of what Free Speech is as an ideal and should be, and to question if France should loosen it’s restrictions or if, perhaps, the USA should consider some restrictions of it’s own.

The truth is that the marches in support of Charlie Hebdo are less about the reality of free speech (as the magazine repeatedly faced being shut down by the French government and no one marched then) but about the symbolism of people wanting to be free to condemn Islam without being murdered.  Now, to be fair, no one should ever be murdered just for having an offensive opinion.

But I, also, would never want to say Je Suis Charlie knowing that they created comics which are deeply offensive to my moderate Muslim friends here in the States, also knowing that they tend to be homophobic and generally have been characterized as lowbrow and crass.  There is a website to help non-French speakers to better understand the cartoons, but click at your own risk.  Political cartooning can be both a great form of satire and visual argument, but also has a spotted history of racism and abusiveness.  Not all political cartoons are created equal, and there is a great opportunity for honest debate being lost by the wholehearted outpouring of defense of Charlie Hebdo.  While no one deserves to die for what they publish, the truth is that there is a level of integrity and ethics that all journalists, even cartoonists, should employ.  Cartoonists today still often employ images that evoke racist sentiments, for example, to attack our President Obama.  The rallying cries of “free speech” and “it’s just a cartoon” cannot always be used to gloss over how irresponsible it is to knowingly publish works with the full intent to offend and incite hatred.

But suddenly I find myself back at the girl bomber in Nigeria, and the pregnant woman left for dead in the streets with her unborn child just pushes away from it’s first breath when it died.

Because we need to ask ourselves what our anger, what our push for solidarity, really represents.  We can’t say that we side with Charlie Hebdo because we are against terrorism, or our horror would be just as strongly for the fact that the Nigerian people are losing the ability to turn to their government for help, and Nigeria may very soon fall entirely into the hands of the terrorist Boko Haram.  We cannot say that our horror at the murder of those cartoonists is solely about people’s right to live without fear, or we’d be a little more concerned that Nigerian schoolgirls cannot leave their homes to get an education without accepting the fact that they may be kidnapped and radicalized into suicide bombers.  So what is it?

My fear is that the identifying with Charlie Hebdo is, at least in part, a sublimated desire to also condemn Islam.

But perhaps I judge too harshly.

All I can say is this:  Yes, cartoonists being killed just for having expressing an opinion, however offensive, is wrong.

But we, as human beings, should be just as quick to stand up for girl’s rights to pursue an education, and people’s rights to live their daily lives without being slaughtered in the streets.  If we truly wish to combat terrorism we need to ask ourselves how exactly that can be done.

Speech isn’t going to end terrorism.

But supporting the Nigerian people so that they are strong enough to fight, protect their daughters, and bear their children: well, that might.

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