Your Mama, My Boogers: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Like many of people, I’ve been following the story of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, and because I’m always good for an opinion, it turns out, I have one.


The attacks, obviously, were horrific and wrong. To quote my mother, “people are not for hitting.” It goes without saying they are also not for shooting. Equally obviously, free speech is incredibly important. A free and just society is an active, constant creation, much like love, and speaking freely and truthfully is a crucial part.

But just because it is your right to say it doesn’t mean it’s right to say it. I’m not talking about political correctness or other people telling you what not to say — censorship of all kinds is frightening. I’m talking about taking responsibility for the power of your words.

Words are very powerful. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is a flat-out lie. Satire is a particularly powerful tool, because of the way it can speak truth to power. This is where Charlie Hebdo was right, and this is also where I think they were wrong.

We’ve been hearing a lot that Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunity satirist. However, the implications of making fun of different people are really different. Satire is imbedded in the political and social structure — it’s whole role is to comment on that structure. But that means that it can’t escape the power dynamics of race, gender, class, and the colonial residues that are part of that culture.

Making fun of Islam in a country that a) colonized a lot of North Africa, and b) has a long history of marginalizing Muslims, and c) etc. is not the same as lampooning the president or the Catholic Church. It’s not speaking truth to power — it’s picking on the underdog. Clearly, the editors thought differently, as is their right. And I may be missing something, since I’m getting these cartoons in translation. But the conversation I’m interested in isn’t so much about that particular newspaper as it is about free speech and responsibility — both of the speaker and of their society.

We have the right to write all kinds of things. I can say anything I want to about your mother (as long as it’s true!), or talk endlessly about my own boogers. If I want to do these things, I shouldn’t be censored, but I can be held responsible for what I say.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about one of my favorite essays, “Boats Is Saintlier Than Captains,” by Robert Bringhurst. It’s an essay ostensibly about morality, language, and design, but it doesn’t stop there.  He says that “there are always plots afoot to limit the moral sphere. These schemes are often called philosophies, but they are rarely more than claims to the ownership of power….” He goes on to define morality as a “working relationship” with humans, other life forms, objects and ideas. Artists are those who “act from a developed moral sense towards certain inanimate things.” Paint, or wood, or cartoons, for instance. This doesn’t make artists more moral than other people, it just means that “the artist is, in his particular field, articulate. We might, in a healthy culture, ask the artist to meet many more criteria than that.

What criteria might we ask our satirists to meet? That they write courageously in the face of intimidation, yes, but perhaps also that they write from a spirit of love, or that they pick their targets with the good of people in mind, or that they are wise, or kind, or genuinely funny. And what about the rest of us writers?

This (along with how to keep the recent events from fueling Islamophobia) is the conversation I hope we all have.

(A couple relevant links:  In a look at the problems with the cartoons, Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian wrote, “Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. Fuck those cartoons.” And an interesting article from 2012 in Slate about the hypocritical way we treat offensive speech against Jews vs. that against Muslims.)