Monday, January 12, 2015

Je ne suis pas (nécessairement) Charlie

I suppose I should publish a few thoughts about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, everyone else seems to have done so.
Obviously, there is no justification for the killing of anyone over a few cartoons, that much is not at issue (unless you are a fundamentalist Muslim, of course, but I have just at little time for such benighted individuals as I do for fundamentalists of any religion, poor misguided souls that they are).
I am responding more to the Western reaction to it, and the debate over whether other media outlets should or should not reproduce the cartoons. Most people's gut reaction, and probably mine too, was to stand up for freedom of the press and freedom of expression. 90-odd per cent of the comments I have read are strongly in that direction, and in particular brand the decisions of the major Canadian media outlets (including the Globe and Mail and the CBC) who chose not to republish the cartoons themselves as cowardly and unjustifiable. This part I am not so sure about.
As I  have said, as an atheist myself, I have very little patience or sympathy with religious beliefs of any stripe, and certainly not with fundamentalist viewpoints. But this does not necessarily mean that we should go out of our way to deride and ridicule them. If we know that some people, fundamentalist and otherwise, are going to be deeply offended, then I would say, leave well enough alone. If there is a distinct possibility that people, including innocent bystanders, may get hurt or killed as a result of the publication, then that seems to me an even more compelling reason not to do it. The right to freedom of expression is a basic one but it should be tempered with judiciousness: just because one can publish something, does not mean that one necessarily should. This kind of judiciousness is not the same thing as cowardice and pusillanimity.
As for the CBC and Globe and Mail's decision not to republish the cartoons, it seems to me that these are not the kinds of cartoons they would regularly show (out of respect, or political correctness if you like), in much the same way as the media routinely decides not to show grisly scenes of death and carnage around the world, and I can quite understand and respect their decision. The cartoons are widely available on the Internet for anyone to investigate if they like (I must admit I found them puerile and unfunny, with very little of the political edge found in many satirical cartoons), and I see no compelling need to foist them on all and sundry. Is it really worth risking the lives of innocent victims in the support of mediocre art and the right to gratuitous offence?
I also have a suspicion that many of the people blasting elements of the Canadian media for cowardice might have quite a different reaction if they were themselves in the position of having to make such a decision, and of having to weigh up the various pros and cons.
And neither is this thing over: a German magazine that republished the cartoons has already been torched, and Charlie Hebdo itself apparently plans more gratuitous Mohammed insults in its next expanded issue. If more people are killed as a result, then the wisdom of such a response might come under more scrutiny, but a more likely outcome is more outrage, more reprisals and even more polarization.
Update: although views of this kind may have been in a small minority at the time of writing, in the week or two since then many more letters have appeared in newspapers along similar lines, which kind of makes me feel a little better about it.

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