Putting a price on freedom of speech
There are certain risks that come along with the title “journalist.”
Mind you, these risks are not the same as the risks you take when you become an emergency responder, a soldier or any profession where your life is in physical – even mortal – danger. But still, there are risks, both apparent and hidden.
The apparent risks appear minimal outside of the newsroom: criticism of work, negative backlash to investigative journalism, libel suits and the like. These things help you learn to develop bark skin and to get that Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) membership.
The hidden risks – well, those just catch you by surprise.
On Jan. 7, 2015, two gunmen attacked the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 and wounding 11. Those killed included five staff cartoonists, two editors, an economist, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a guest.
The catalyst behind this attack was Hebdo’s proclivity toward satirically depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the pages of the magazine. Though human images of prophets are not specifically banned in the Quran, prominent Islamic views oppose such effigies.
So, as the gunmen committed their act, they shouted “Allahu Akbar” – or, as it is usually translated, “God is [the] greatest.”
Journalists the world over mourned the loss and felt the attacks as a personal blow to their trade and lifeblood. Those within and outside of the journalism realm rallied behind the cry “Je suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” en anglais.
But what does it mean to be Charlie?
Does it mean that you are a proponent of freedom of speech, regardless of what that speech may denote or connote? Does it mean you support satire in the mainstream, regardless of whom it may offend? Does it mean you support the magazine, regardless of its views?
Much like “Don’t forget to be awesome” or any other mantra, it could mean a variety of things to different people. It could mean all of those things and more, or it could mean none of those things. So, before you proclaim your support in French, know both sides before formulating an opinion.
Just know why vous êtes Charlie – that is, if you believe you are Charlie.
A scroll through some of the microblogs on Tumblr shows that some of the people there were not, in fact, Charlie and did not support a magazine that they felt was Islamaphobic and homophobic, among other faux fears that mostly just mask hate.
This point is where the nature of satire – and freedom of speech as a whole – comes into play.
Is it satirical if it comes off as hateful? Is it a proper use of free speech if it minimizes and entire culture? Is it fine to laugh in the revelry of schadenfreude?
Say what you will about Charlie Hebdo and its writers. Maybe you like their brand of satire, but maybe you prefer the satire of a Stephen Colbert. Perhaps your tastes in satire are more literary and come in the works of Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift.
Regardless of tastes, remember the words of satirist Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Indeed, that quotation is the essence of free speech.
You may not agree with what Charlie Hebdo published, what the writers and cartoonists spit out or what the messages behind those pieces conveyed. But you cannot deny their right to say it.
You cannot say that murder was just one of the risks of their job.
Now, I love satire. Colbert is my favorite, and Ambrose Bierce’s works are a fun time for me. Charlie Hebdo is a miss for me; I would rather not read something that could truly offend an entire culture, its people and its practices. But, with freedom of speech, they have all right to do so, intentionally or otherwise, without persecution.
The beauty of freedom of speech, though, is that you have just as much right to call them out for every offensive, blasphemous and hateful comic that hits print – also without fear of persecution.
So no, I am not Charlie. But I am a journalist who feels like everyone has a right to speak freely, especially to call out those who use that right to breed hate or offense.
More importantly, I think everyone has a right to speak without dying for saying it.
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