Friday, 9 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo & Voltaire

Photo: Le Monde/AFP

"I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (Voltaire)

When I read about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo this week, I felt such sorrow for the twelve victims. Much has been written about the cartoonists, who bravely exercised their right to poke fun at every single world religion. As Salman Rushdie said in reaction to the killings: "Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect." Now that the news cycle is moving on, some columnist seem to be grasping for clickbait and creative angles, and I've seen a few stories saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were provocative or rude. This of course misses the point. The point is not that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were great. 100,000 French people didn't spontaneously take to the streets in mourning because the cartoons were great. The point is that everyone has the right to draw cartoons. And if someone takes offense, they also have the right to respond: by drawing another cartoon, by arguing against the cartoon, even by sueing if they feel the cartoon is defamatory. That's how democracy works. What is unacceptable is to kill someone because you disagree with them. It is also unacceptable to blame the victim, or, as the Financial Times did, to suggest the editors at Charlie Hebdo could have used more "common sense", which sounds suspiciously like "well she shouldn't have worn such a short skirt". Cautious satire, common-sense satire, is pointless satire.

In that context, I was thinking of the non-journalists who were killed at Charlie Hebdo. The bodyguard, the two policemen, the receptionist, the caretaker. In some ways, they were the best and bravest defenders of free speech and liberal values. They weren't the ones who drew the cartoons. But they worked in a building that had been repeatedly threatened, and in the case of the policemen, they tried to protect the lives of others simply because it was their duty, because it was the right thing to do. It's sad that so little is known about these victims, and I hope we'll learn more about them. I keep thinking that there must have been at least one among them who didn't even read Charlie Hebdo, maybe didn't even like the cartoons. Someone who truly embodied that Voltaire quote: someone who perhaps disapproved of what the cartoonists said, but defended to the death their right to say it.

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