PEN American center has decided to present their PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Free Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine that was the target of a vile attack in January – when journalists were murdered in cold blood in the name of religion.
This decision to hand this award to the French magazine was met by disapproval by a number of people. As a result, six writers — Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and Taiye Selasi — said they were withdrawing from the gala because they were not comfortable with the award going to Charlie Hebdo. A further 140 writers have signed a letter protesting against the PEN award going to the magazine.
I respect their decision but I cannot say I understand it. In fact, I must admit it baffles me. What those writers are seemingly saying with their non-attendance (and the protest letter) is that Charlie Hebdo was ultimately offensive and racist – and that its freedom of speech should have been curtailed.
There was (and is) nothing racist about Charlie hebdo’s cartoons. This magazine has a long history of satirising and it satirises absolutely everything and everybody. Nobody is spared, which is just as it should be when it comes to satire. The “prophet” which is the subject of people’s ire appeared a handful of times on covers of the magazine. Christianity was derided far more often and it sometimes angered Christians just as some Muslims were angered by anything that had to do with the prophet. Christianity (Catholics in particular) Islam, Judaism….you name it, the magazine lampooned it. Nobody is saying that satire cannot be offensive, because of course it can. But that is sometimes the point – to make people stop and think. There is a world of difference between something that might be offensive, and something that is outright racist and hateful though. I’m sorry, but anybody with half a brain should be able to tell the difference between the two.
After the attack in January, the first cover of Charlie Hebdo carried a photo of the prophet with the headline: “All is forgiven”.
It was a wonderful and incredibly generous thing to do so soon after the bloodshed in their offices – so how anyone can accuse the magazine of racism and being outrageously offensive is beyond me.
I believe that satire has a vital role to play in society. Satire is what keeps governments and institutions more or less in check. Satire is a way to inform people of what is going on, of pointing out flaws and hypocrisy, and yes, a way to broach subjects that are deemed to be too “sensitive” to be talked about.
What those six writers are saying by withdrawing from the gala is that freedom of speech only goes so far, that it has its limits.
Well, I am appalled by this point of view – we should be able to discuss everything and lampoon it all. In this sometimes very bleak world, humour is what keeps most of us sane.
It goes without saying that freedom of speech does not entitle one to incite racial hatred, or any kind of hatred for that matter. But this does not apply to Charlie Hebdo as what they were (are) doing was merely satirising, pointing out the ridicule and hypocrisy of certain situations, institutions and people. Satirising something does not mean change is necessarily going to happen as a result (although it sometimes does) but it means that we are aware (and making others aware) of certain wrongs.
I do believe the fact I’m French has a lot to do with my passionate belief in freedom of speech. I was brought up in a country which values intellect. We are a nation of people who like nothing more than discuss and debate things around good food and wine. We understand that people have different ideas, different point of views, but rather than get mad at them, we like to engage them in a lively and often humorous debate.
Satire and the extent of it – what one can get away with – has a lot to do with context. Would Charlie Hebdo have happened in a country other than France? Probably not. The French get it – they might not agree with all of the magazine’s lampooning, or even most of it, but they have no problem with the essence of the magazine – with what it’s doing. The French understand that you are allowed to have an opinion and express it, that you have to laugh at things, that pointing out flaws, with a laugh, is a much better way than doing it while shaking your fist – they might not agree with what you have to say, but they understand that you’re allowed to say it.
We are the country which revolted against the injustice of inherited privileges, the country that murdered our royal family. The French Revolution was violent and bloody and stayed in the French psyche – it remains with us to this day. We fought and shed blood for our rights: one of them being that all men are (or should be) born equal and with the same advantages – and yes, we fought for freedom of speech as well.
So the French get satire.
I am very proud of being French but I have no problem with denouncing anything at all my government or my countrymen might do which I deem unacceptable. Being French is a very important part of my identity – yet I can laugh at myself, my country and our culture. Like every country, there is much to “laugh at” in France. The French can be pompous, rude and arrogant, they produce endless “intellectual” movies with way too much gratuitous sex in them, the bureaucracy in France is an absolute joke, customer service in France is appalling, etc……
People have laughed at the French for so long. Fuck knows I’ve heard enough “French jokes” and had countless swipes taken at me because of my nationality over the years – particularly here in England where I now live.
Do I care? Not at all. As long as you’re being funny and you have a point, take your best shot – I’ll probably agree with you.
Do I sometimes get annoyed? Yes (if the jokes are not particularly clever or funny) Do I ever feel deeply insulted? Very rarely, but it happens, when people are just being nasty and cruel. Have I ever been tempted to throw my fist in somebody’s face when they were particularly offensive? Yes, if they caught me on a bad day and displayed rare levels of ignorance and racism. So yes, I have felt like it, but have I ever done it? No. Let alone think about picking up a gun and murdering people in cold blood just because they have offended me.
Charlie Hebdo laughed at everything: politicians (from France and other countries) from the left, centre and right, and all religions.
The journalists assassinated in their office in Paris in January knew the menace that hovered over them. They knew what they were doing was dangerous (they’d had many threats over the years) but they passionately believed in telling the truth and freedom of speech.
No award is going to bring them back to life and it’s meagre consolation for their families. But it’s an award they deserve for their unwavering courage in the face of intolerance.
The facts that journalists were murdered in cold blood in the capital city of a civilised country is horrific, utterly shocking and totally unacceptable. Is it going to silence the magazine or intimidate the French? No.
The religious fanatics who committed that January attack tried to “murder” Charlie Hebdo and free speech. The fools only succeeded in making it stronger than ever – and uniting an entire country.
I find it incredibly strange that writers, of all people, don’t seem to understand the significance of free speech and what it encompasses. But to all of them who oppose the PEN award going to Charlie Hebdo, I can only say – as Voltaire did before me: “I may not agree with what you have to say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. That is what free speech is all about – vital.
Image credit:imgarcade.com, izquotes.com, lifehackQuotes, slideshare.net, James Walmesley for the wonderful “Je Suis charlie” drawing and David Pope for the equally awesome “He drew first” drawing