Yes, dear regular reader, I know what you’re thinking. “What? This isn’t about doping in sports?” And you’re right, it isn’t. Not at all. It’s about something much bigger and more important.
As you might know, I started my professional life as a journalist, after graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri – Columbia. Photojournalist to be exact. And I still have a number of friends who are journalists of all stripes. Writers, editors, television, print. And photo. Especially photo. And yes, I miss being a photojournalist every day — every time I see the brilliant work being done by my classmates and other friends from the business.
So I take an attack on other journalists personally. Even if they aren’t my friends or relatives. Even if they live in a different country. To say I was appalled by the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week would be an understatement. Same for the killings at Hyper Cacher (the Kosher market) two days later.
Much has been written about Charlie Hebdo and what it supposedly is or isn’t, and what kind of work it puts into the marketplace of ideas. I’m not going to touch on that, for a very simple reason. Without fluency in a language, and a culture, and the context, it’s impossible to evaluate the work in terms of whether it is racist, for example. Much of what has been written in America is through American eyes looking at cartoons, using Google Translate or (heaven forbid) Bing to figure out the text in the captions or in the image. It’s a dangerous formula for commentary, and it’s a game I’m not going to play.
Over at The Daily Kos is a very good article that explains some of the magazine’s works and gives some of the context to the work. I’ll say this much. It’s probably not what you think. Read the article.
My concern is the reaction that the magazine shouldn’t have provoked the attackers and is somewhat to blame for what happened. No, they aren’t. It is never acceptable to kill journalists, no matter what you think of their work. And no, the magazine should not necessarily censor itself and hold back publishing material that might be offensive to someone. In the business of satire, much of what is written or drawn is offensive to someone, somewhere. So to hold back would be not to publish satire at all.
We don’t have anything quite like Charlie Hebdo in the US, from what I can tell. The TV shows “The Family Guy” or “The Simpsons” might come close. And Mad Magazine of a certain era, too. But that’s about it.
But if we did, then the magazine or show should be free to publish or say what they wish.
Now having said that, even when speaking freely we aren’t absolved from responsibility for our speech. For example, if I publish an article that claims a person is a child-abuser, I’d better darn well have proof that this is so. Otherwise, I’ll face the possible wrath of a defamation lawsuit. And deservedly so, if the claim is not true.
I’m no fan of a certain “news” network, or certain bomb-throwing commentators who suggest that those not like them are traitors and should be dealt with in various harsh ways. The discourse in this country has become so polarized and vehement, that someday, somewhere, someone is going to snap, and we’re going to have a Charlie Hebdo-like event right here.
Because it’s not that far from demonizing one or more groups of people to someone actually taking matters into their own hands and causing harm. It might be directed towards an ethnic group, a racial group or a religious group, or even a political group. But it can happen.
It’s not a matter of if. It’s only a matter of when. Unless…
Unless we can move the dialogue in this country back from the brink. Unless we can find a way to respectfully disagree. Unless we can marginalize the shrill voices of unreason. And unless we find a way to make sure that everyone has a good education and an opportunity to get ahead. Unless we can create an economy that has jobs that pay a living (or better than living) wage to all.
None of this is easy. It takes everyone’s effort. We are all in this together. We may not agree on how things should be done, or even what should be done, but if we don’t find ways of working together, we’re doomed.
The lesson of Charlie Hebdo, to me, is not that journalists shouldn’t be killed. Of course they shouldn’t. Or that they should not publish what stories or commentary they will. They should be free to say what they think.
The lesson is that we need to be sure we have an environment where differences of opinion are respected — even if we find those other opinions abhorrent. And an environment where the conditions that led to the radicalization of these men do not exist.
What happened in Paris happened because the extremists could not accept that others have a right to say things they disagree with or find offensive. And they felt somehow justified in using violence to silence those they disagree with.
While I have no idea how to do it, we need to find a way — both in France and the US — to build a society where such extremism is much rarer than it is today. And not just in matters of religion.
So, that said, I am both Charlie and Ahmed. The provocateur and the person defending the provocateur.