For an American audience, Charlie Hebdo is like a crossover between Mad Magazine and underground comix from the 60s, full of satire and sex. It’s as if Robert Crumb and Jon Stewart had just been gunned down during a board meeting at Comedy Central.
I lived in France and read Charlie Hebdo throughout my teens. So I am using the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie #IAmCharlieHebdo to show my support for fellow cartoonists and express my utter sadness at their brutal murders.
However this hashtag, while well intentioned, is misleading. For if everyone is ‘Charlie Hebdo’ then everyone is a victim, which is exactly what the terrorists want. But if ‘being Charlie’ means having the guts to stand up to censorship in ALL its forms, including having the right to poke islamic fanaticism in the eye, then I’m all for it. Unfortunately, I feel the opposite is beginning to happen.
London imam Anjem Choudary correctly said in defense of the Paris shootings: “If freedom of expression can be sacrificed for criminalising incitement & hatred, Why not for insulting the Prophet of Allah? #ParisShooting — Anjem Choudary (@anjemchoudary)”
His ironclad logic is unassailable in this world of political correctness and ‘tolerance’. When you outlaw ONE WORD, you potentially outlaw them all. When freedom of expression, WHATEVER IT MAY BE gets threatened, freedom of thought gets censored too.
People are already being jailed for saying something stupid on Facebook or posting videos. Professionals are being fired for their political or religious views. ‘Hate speech’ is a criminal offense. But who gets to determine what qualifies as hate speech? Does Anjem Choudary get to make that call? And if not, why not?
If it is NOT OK to use certain words, whichever they may be, whatever the context, then censorship has already begun. Cartoonists, writers, artists, thinkers will begin to self-censure in the name of tolerance to disguise their fear. This is already happening.
Certain thoughts and opinions become taboo and mental repression sets in, whether it be coerced or self-inflicted. History is littered with entire civilizations being brainwashed this way, ie: Nazism or Communism. This is not something new.
What is new is that our generation, from the mid 20th century until now, has never had to face a true war on the Western homeland. We have enjoyed over 65 years of peace, with no major disruption to our modern way of life.
It felt natural for me as a kid and a teenager to dream of becoming a professional cartoonist. In fact, I have based my whole life on believing that being an artist was a valid, useful and worthwhile profession. I went to art school, got jobs doing illustrations, TV graphics, magazine layouts, paintings, video installations, music concerts and my childhood dream: cartoons. Even though I have had to navigate economic ups and downs, I always believed being an artist was a good thing.
Now art has been weaponized. Artists are at the forefront of a cultural war.
Every artist is going to ask themselves if their art will offend. Some will seek out controversy as a shortcut to publicity but most others cower away and end up erasing their ‘provocative’ drawings. The net effect, I fear in the long run will be that fewer and fewer people will stand up for those who are genuine champions of free speech, like Charlie Hebdo.
So while it’s great to say #IAmCharlieHebdo, especially when everyone else is doing it, who will in the end be bold enough to risk everything to say something that is politically incorrect, or offensive to some, or ‘hate speech’?
I am an artist and I can’t answer that question.