A Look at … CHARLIE HEBDO and freedom of speech
Offending our liberal sentiments
The recent killings in Paris at the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, had a worldwide reaction entirely disproportionate to the actual death toll (12 in the attack and 2 policemen). Astonishingly it prompted a demonstration by millions of people. France has flooded the streets with soldiers and police “to keep people safe”.2000 people died in Nigeria recently too, many of the girls abducted by Boko Haram have still not been rescued, a ten year old was used as a suicide bomber, Palestinians die daily in the territories occupied by Israel, a mortuary-based study concluded that in South Africa a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six hours, and Rape Crisis reports disturbing statistics of rape of under-aged girls. A new law in Russia states that homosexuals and transsexuals will not be issued with drivers’ licences for medical reasons. Three journalists from Al Jazeera have been in prison in Egypt for more than a year. In Kabul exists a custom of resistance, the Bacha Posh – girls that are raised and presented as boys because women have almost no rights in their society.
This is the state of our world. Human rights, of which freedom of speech is one, are not exactly upheld everywhere, are they? This begs several questions:
- “Which lives are deserving of being mourned?”
- Which lives deserve to be protected?”
- “Who has freedom of expression …ever? “
The French – upholders of rights
“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.”
This wonderful democratic ideal (in all its many permutations) has been ascribed to Voltaire. Marvellous concept, but is this not a luxury for the very few? For most people their identities are tied up with their belief system. It requires enormous philosophical maturity to be able to see the tenets according to which we define ourselves to ourselves, mocked. I cannot even at all times speak my mind in my own home, without hurting somebody. We have to remain sensitive and respectful and in doing so we can but hope that the same will be done unto us. Berlusconi was reprimanded for his Jewish joke and claimed the right to free speech. When asked if he minded the many cartoons depicting him in his silly glass box ‘Pope-mobile’ with his sandaled feet pedalling away underneath, the pontiff had the grace to say he totally loved it- it made people think.
“accepted standards of right and good vary with environment and from person to person”
I think (tsk) that what cartoonists try to do is to make us think. They make meaning with pictures out of complicated issues – we literally do not have the words. President Zuma’s appalling behaviour around the ghastly issue of rape and HIV, (as if his polygamy and being the begetter of 32 children is not embarrassing enough to South Africans) … could only be put into perspective by that shower head that followed him around in cartoons in the media. Satire ‘relativises’ things for us, but this is only possible when we are secure in ourselves and our beliefs. If you do not know who you are, the denigration of the symbols that prop you up is hugely humiliating, and humiliation is the pathway to violence.
The problem with all religions is that it has no relativistic ability; it deals in ultimates. From there it is a short step to knowing what is right for other people. The road to individuation is long and painful, and in the meantime people feel they must belong to a group to feel secure. Naturally membership of the group curtails freedom of expression, as it weakens the group.
“never teach politics; it is far too criminal a subject to teach children.” (W.H Auden)
To see a complacent Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who has no respect for the lives of Palestinians, walking in the post Charlie Hebdo parade, made me re-think the whole situation. A member of the Charlie Hebdo staff said, sweepingly, in an interview that secularism was under attack. That is as fundamental a notion as the belief system that supposedly launched the act of terror. Then the two suspects are conveniently killed, and cannot be questioned. This was after the one brother was considerate enough to leave his identity card in the car. Amazingly amateurish for Al Qaeda inspired assassins, don’t you think? Too many aspects do not rhyme in this whole business, and I am 99% certain we do not know the truth of matters.
In the meantime, who has benefited from the whole debacle? Certainly it has hugely damaged the credibility of the principles of Islam and the intentions of Islamic organisations. On the other hand, certainly the right wing in France has scored major popularity points, and immigration will become a dirty word. Certainly the magazine itself – from printing 60 000 copies before the massacre they sold out 3 million copies in twelve languages.
I think something good (possibly purely accidentally) has come out of the horror: leaders from all over the world and from various ideological standpoints (including prominent Islamic figures) united to protest against terrorism. It is time for leaders to condemn attacks on civilians openly – silence has been consent for too long. The leaders of the Islamic world have to speak out more strongly. Just remember that Obama and Cameron … like Bush and Blair before them, also have blood on their hands when it comes to the loss of civilian lives.
Comedy is an act of courage, but so is daily life in Syria … and on the Cape flats.
Will a million people rally in protest for them?