On Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of the Press

As a disclaimer, I want to say that I realize this is a very difficult subject, with a lot of gray areas. Because France is an entirely different culture than America, I’m sure there are things I’m misunderstanding with regards to content published in Charlie Hebdo. The recent events in France are heartbreaking, and they are not what I’m writing about today. Instead, I am writing to make the point that cruelty should not be misunderstood as heroism, regardless of the name given to it. 

This post has been edited since its original form to reflect information about which I was corrected. 

charlie hebdo

Last week, the world stopped for a few hours when a popular magazine in France – Charlie Hebdowas attacked. Since then, most of France’s allies have rallied (I say most because here in America, it only just occurred to us that maybe we should head over and help our friends out right about now), as has much of the rest of the world to support the country and, more specifically, the magazine. The attack is one problem in a small series of them which ultimately, is resulting in increased police and military activity throughout major cities and surrounding well-known landmarks.

Ultimately though, that’s not what I want to talk about today. My opinion on terrorism should be a given more than anything, because who needs to be asked that question? Who would disagree that it remains one of the worst crimes perpetrated against humankind and which, once experienced, never quite goes away?

Instead, what I want to talk about is the magazine targeted, and the world’s reaction to that magazine post-attack. First though, I want to explain that this is a horrifying event that I can’t even begin to understand. As someone who can hardly understand war, acts of terrorism are absolutely beyond my comprehension, and I can’t even begin to imagine the grief French citizens are experiencing right now.

That said, I think it’s important that we recognize what Charlie Hebdo was: an exceedingly cruel “joke” masked as free speech, something which I condemned in my post on Monday, and which I’ll say again now.

Tweet: The rights to free speech and press don’t entitle you to treat people with cruelty. http://ctt.ec/_pLIa+

While the attacks in France are unimaginable, it is also unimaginable to me that one would choose to make their career out of demonizing someone based solely on their beliefs or for that matter, on anything. Why spending your days imagining new ways to target the same group of people who have already been targeted more than anyone should have to endure seems ideal or courageous.

Since the attacks last week, the Internet has swelled with support for a magazine that has spent years paying its dues by treating people with disrespect based solely on their religious beliefs. While I recognize the rights to free speech and press as being two of the greatest rights we’ve been given, and ones which we cannot take for granted or dismiss, I also recognize that as human beings we should see a limit to those rights. A line we will not cross, despite the realization that we can.

I cannot applaud the writers of Charlie Hebdo for their continued efforts or their cruel “jokes” because what they’re doing isn’t a joke and isn’t easily forgotten for those being targeted. Because without our ever realizing it, thousands of people take the covers of Charlie Hebdo and other similar media representations to heart, an excuse to prosecute and condemn those people being targeted.

  • http://www.gorjaeous.com/ Jae

    This is a powerful post, Kiersten, and I completely understand where you’re coming from. Nicely put.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Thanks Jae!

  • http://www.californienne.com/ Marianne

    This is an extremely delicate situation to talk about. Yes, Charlie Hebdo creates images that can be construed as offensive however it is important to remember that the magazine does not just target one group of people. Instead Charlie Hebdo has a long history of making fun of everyone, even their own French president on a fairly regular basis. It’s a satire, and much like in the U.S. we have satirical sources to poke fun at things like that, this is the French version. While it may seem crass to viewers from other countries, this is French humor, and it is accepted as satire in French society.

    I also want to point out that the image that was published by Charlie Hebdo, “All is forgiven” means that everyone is represented by “Je suis Charlie” and that even people of the same race and religion as those who committed the crimes can identify with “Je suis Charlie.” It means that France (or Charlie Hebdo for that matter) has no anger towards the religion or race of anyone because of several people committing a crime.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      I fully understand that this is an extremely difficult topic and I’m very sorry if I’ve offended you or anyone else. It’s just my opinion, because I dint believe we should be making people into heros when all they’ve done is make fun of religions and cultures.

      I don’t read French and, like you mentioned it is a different culture so maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I’ve always recognized satire to be somewhat productive, presenting a solution to a problem masked in humor, as with A Modest Proposal. As much as they claim to be, shows like Family Guy are not satire. From what I understand (and an image of Muhammad riddled with bullets seems hard to misconstrue), thats not what Charlie Hebdo does either. It just makes fun for the sake of making fun.

      I did misunderstand the most recent cover. I had read it as Muhammed telling the magazine they’re forgiven. So I’m sorry about that.

      Finally, I know that technically the writers target everyone, but of the covers I’ve seen they seem primarily focused on Muslims, with the occasional Catholic or Jewish cover.

      I just think it’s important to recognize that cruelty, even masked as humor, is not heroic or something to aspire to.

      Thank you for sharing your opinion.

      • http://www.californienne.com/ Marianne

        You didn’t offend me at all and I hope I didn’t offend you in any way. I totally agree that we shouldn’t make people into heroes when they are poking fun at religions and cultures (including their own). However I don’t think that the people who were killed in the Charlie Hebdo offices have been made into “heroes” really (perhaps it is a difference in media sources? I’m sure various sources are reporting this differently than others), more like victims that are now the representation of free speech versus terrorism. I do, definitely agree with you in the fact that cruelty is not heroic. Absolutely.

        • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

          I’m not really seeing it in the news so much as with people discussing it on social media. I don’t watch televised news actually – just read articles, and I haven’t seen any journalists saying any opinion. It’s been people on Twitter, FB, etc, saying that we should all rush out and buy the magazine to support them, etc.

  • Shybiker

    While this issue is complex, let me say that I agree with you. Having the opportunity to speak does not give one the “right” to be disrespectful. And if one makes that choice, expect consequences. People who attack others can’t hide behind a vague notion of freedom of speech. Everyone must take responsibility for their acts and speech is an act like anything else.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      I feel the same way! It just frustrates me to no end that people are using the Constitution (and the French equivalent) as an excuse to be cruel. That’s not the purpose AT ALL, and it suggests a pretty fundamental lack of education that anyone would think it is.

  • http://www.nomadnotebook.com/ Lizzy

    100% agree. “Free speech” cannot and should not be used as an excuse to be downright disrespectful. I, as a non-Muslim individual feel upset by the images printed by Charlie Hebdo. I dread to think how hurtful they are to my Muslim friends, and indeed how hurtful they are to Islam as a whole. I’m SO sick of things like this contributing to the Islamophobia that already exists in a massive way in society. It’s so sad.

    Lizzy from Nomad Notebook

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Exactly! That’s not its purpose, and it strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech means to suggest that it’s an excuse to be cruel. And I agree – I’m upset by the “caricatures” I’ve seen (mostly Muslim, although I’ve seen one making fun of Catholics and Jewish people) – so I can’t imagine how frustrating and upsetting it must be to the people who identify within those groups.

  • http://www.domesticdysfunction.net/ Tiffany

    I agree and often say that the freedom of speech does not preclude you from suffering the consequences of that speech. It’s really tragic all the way around.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Exactly. And I don’t at all think that the act of terrorism was honestly a result of the magazine. I know that the group that did it called it retribution, but honestly – terrorists terrorize. They just need a reason, any reason. However, that doesn’t make what Charlie Hebdo did okay.

  • http://whatwecandotoday.wordpress.com Lina

    It really is a tricky topic to address because talking about the appropriateness of the magazine could me misunderstood as giving them part of the responsibility which is obviously bs.
    I think Satire as a genre is very important to question common beliefs and raise awareness for the many logical fails in politics. This requires a certain level of disrespect. Getting personal is (though bad style) often a part of it. But printing the caricatures of Mohammed and rejecting the ones with Jesus appears biased. The problem here is that most people (me included) don´t have their information straight from the source and did not form a sound opinion.

    I think it is very sad that right-wing extremists will profit from these events. And it is also sad that the lives of people in a developed country seem to count more than the lives in less developed countries.

    A side note: The prominent support was fake, they re-enacted the picture that has gone viral, in a side road and disappeared again. And that is really embarrassing for people who are supposed to be political leaders.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Oo I absolutely agree – honestly, I think that terrorist groups would take any reason to commit terrorism. Charlie Hebdo was just an easy target because they had an excuse, and to say that what happened is any way their fault is absolutely disgusting.

      That said, on a completely separate subject, I don’t think that what Charlie Hebdo does is okay. Like you wrote above – satire is pointing out and suggesting solutions to a common problem. That’s not at all what Charlie Hebdo does – it calls Catholics pedophiles and Muslims terrorists and that’s as far as it goes. It doesn’t suggest a solution, or get deep or anything like that. It just repeatedly makes fun of the same groups of people for the exact same things, over and over and over, as though every Muslim is a terrorist. Somehow, the modern definition of satire has expanded to include mere cruelty under the guise of “just kidding” and that’s not what it is.

      I’m sure there are things I may not know about the magazine and what they print, but in general I don’t believe my opinion is going to change that what they’re doing is an abuse of free speech which only serves to perpetuate cruelty towards certain groups.

  • http://clayxmatthewsxfan89.blogspot.com/ Jessica Marie

    Thank you for this post. I do not support France because of the way they treat Muslims. I practiced Islam for 6 months and most Muslims HATE violence and denounce what terrorists do – terrorists have hijacked the faith, but it happens in all faiths, sadly. :(

    I agree with you about the satire part – to me, that satire was disguised as bullying. I was debating writing about this.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      I can’t say I know how France treats Muslims (although I know that their treatment of Jewish people is getting bad recently), but I absolutely cannot believe that so many people are supporting a magazine that does these things. I just find it incredibly sad and disgusting that as a country, we are completely okay with blaming every single Muslim for what a small group of extremists have done. It’s not only cruel, but entirely counterproductive.

  • Janette Garcia

    I agree with you. People have been taking this and turning it into an issue of freedom of speech when it really is a hate crime towards Muslims. The blame of this incident should also not fall on the shoulders of the Muslim people, which is what is being done. Christians aren’t asked if they support the actions of their religious extremists. The disrespect shown cannot be forgiven even though it is a tragedy that it happened.

    • http://www.sheisfierce.org/ Kiersten McMonagle

      Exactly! I don’t even know if I’d go so far as to say that the magazine is in itself a hate crime, but it definitely perpetuates hate crimes by feeding into awful preconceptions about certain groups.

      And you’re right – somehow, every time something like this happens, it gets blamed on every Muslim or every Middle Easterner. It’s a VERY small group of people committing these terrible crimes, and it’s so counterproductive and cruel to blame every Muslim for what a small group of extremists have done.