“The pen is mightier than the sword” is an old adage seared into the Western liberal imagination, but when those two forces clash in the real world, the consequences are often tragic. In recent days, the massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris–a monstrous retaliation against a group of cartoonists known for racist depictions of Muslims–has ignited a massive wave of public outrage, along with an undercurrent of deep racial anxieties, national security panic, and crude political polemicizing. But the scene of last weekend’s protest march through the streets of Paris brought a brief moment of lucid silence amid the chaos, with masses of people holding up pens like tiny beacons, seeking to show solidarity with the slain cartoonists and opposition to Islamic extremism.
Yet the symbolism seemed somehow off to some who felt alienated by the cries of #JeSuisCharlie, who saw hypocrisy or cultural ignorance in the mass eruption of sympathy. The passion for freedom of expression was there, but so was the yearning for genuine representation in a society that leaves many on the margins and shameful histories.
But in their own ways, Arab and Muslim artists rose up in response to the attacks, as artists and as representatives of their communities. Some cartoonists have published their own perspectives on the trauma and confusion of the moment. There’s a subtext in the context of these cartoons–the artists are themselves taking a real risk by expressing that solidarity with the victims. They work under the constant threat of not just reactionary extremists, but also the governments seeking suppress any hint of dissent. And as they challenge and provoke the establishment–against a backdrop of war, imperialism, and economic and social strife–every line they draw risks crossing another line that authority has drawn against them.
For activists who chafe at the inflammatory viciousness of Charlie Hebdo, the issue today is not a debate over free speech but rather, over how our free expression mediates and mirrors the way we see and interact with each other–how we respect or disrespect friends, enemies, fellow citizens.
Free expression is sacred, especially when it allows for the profane. And yet for art to be effective, it also demands a respect for its power and its consequences.
Hicham Baba Ahmed, a satirist at the independent Algerian newspaper El Watan, told Bloomberg News, “Everything depends on the society in which we live. If I censor myself, it’s not because I am scared but because society isn’t ready for certain subjects.” But he noted that the climate for creative expression is evolving: “Twenty years ago, no one dared to draw the President of the Republic. Today, we do it every day…. We are social indicators, a barometer. If I draw whatever I want, that means society is free.”
I condemn the attacks on the cartoonists even though I don’t agree with the publication’s editorial slant, which I have often found to be hurtful and racist. Nevertheless, I would continue to stand for their freedom of speech….
Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon and one I have never fully had – but for those who do have it, I wish they would stop taking it for granted…. Their work must focus on conveying the right message. They must work towards bridging the gap – and not widening it.
The value of free speech is universal–full stop. But our access to freedom of expression, and ability to exercise it in everyday life, are shaped by circumstance. Around the world, countless individuals are not free to speak out whenever and however they want, and to be heard. For those of us who have that privilege, what’s our responsibility toward those who don’t?
Leila writes in the Daily Beast:
Clearly, the case of Charlie Hebdo is different from the risks faced by activists and satirists in the Middle East. The cartoonists and others murdered in cold blood in Paris were protected by the state, and the people doing the murdering represent a hateful and incomprehensible ideology rather than an institutionalized power…. In responding to this atrocity, though, we must not run the risk of assuming that Muslims, both those offended by the cartoons and those not, do not understand the value of free speech or the importance of standing up to censorship.
No one knows the value of free expression more deeply than the artists who risk everything to speak truth and express their conscience without fear. But although the principle of free speech should never be pitted against fears of persecution or censorship–conscientiousness and free expression aren’t mutually exclusive or inherently in conflict. Indeed, in art and politics, empathy and fairness can only operate within a context of social freedom.
Many artists live in societies that often force them into silence. And somehow they still manage to use satire, humor and imagination to keep resisting whenever they can. Those fortunate enough to live without those strictures can express solidarity not just by embracing their individual freedom, but wielding it to strive toward a collective freedom that is only as powerful as it is inclusive. A truly free society is one where everyone can live free of fear.