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.)


Startling Statistics #2 — The Final Numbers on I522

Unlike the first startling statistics I wrote about, these are true:

In the recent I522 campaign to label genetically modified foods in Washington, the Yes campaign raised $8 million dollars from 16,421 people. Average donations were about $10.

The No campaign raised $22 million from 12 donors, only six of whom were human people instead of corporations. Average No donation? $1.8 mil.

The initiative, if you weren’t following, lost 51.09% to 48.91% with less than half of voters actually voting. It won in every age group except seniors.

First response: a spike of outrage about corporate money in politics. Second, the calm knowledge that GMO labeling is just a matter of time. At worst, we just have to wait for all those skeptical old guys to die off.

Meanwhile, I think we should organize a sporting event pitting the Yes donors against the No donors — something civilized, so those pitiful six real humans won’t get crushed. Maybe a tug-of-war. Then we’ll see which way people want this thing to go.

Nelson Mandela and the Flow Motion Snake

The radio these past two days is all “When I met Nelson Mandela….” and “My impressions of Nelson Mandela….” from every person of any possibly qualification, from journalists to the Prime Minister of the UK. I think this is a way of generating enough airtime on his death to do him justice without getting too deep into the very complicated and not-yet-actually-very-pretty legacy of colonialism. I have some opinions about that. Anyhow, I did not meet Nelson Mandela, but I’m going to chime in anyways.

My first memory of learning about Nelson Mandela was around 1991, when my dad gave me a children’s biography of him. Now, my dad does not give me many presents — gift-finding is on my mom’s side of my parents’ division of labor — and while my dad loves and understands me really well, I don’t always understand my dad’s presents. Let’s just say that gift-giving is not my dad’s primary love language. I was a bookworm as a kid so a book wasn’t really a weird present, but I think I wasn’t that excited about biographies at that point. I remember it bewildered me. Was I supposed to read it for fun? I’m not sure if I actually did read it, but I remember sitting on the floor of my room, on my North Seattle street with its one black family, looking at the book, trying to decide if it was going to be boring. I know I read the ending, which was that Nelson Mandela went to prison and was still in prison. This strikes me now as being very interesting — that he was a man who had done enough in his life that they were writing children’s biographies of him, long before the end of his story had happened.

Looking back on it, my dad choosing that biography shows a knowledge of me that I may not have had yet about myself. Fast forward twenty-two years, and I’m reading much more about racism and colonialism and the power of individuals working with each other to change things in real ways, and also the way colonialism has shapeshifted into global capitalism in a way that reminds me of another thing from 1991 — those balloon-tubes filled with liquid (AKA Flow Motion Water Snakes!) that kept slipping through your hands and calling it fun.

One of the momentous things about Nelson Mandela is that he reminds us that all of this stuff isn’t ancient history.  Apartheid ended when I was in middle school, and I am not that old. The U.S. still has colonies, right now. And even though apartheid is over in South Africa, it doesn’t mean there is an equitable distribution of capital. There’s that old slippery snake.

You can pop those balloon snakes with a pin. Not sure about their real-world counterparts, but that is something the rest of us will have to figure out now that Nelson Mandela is gone.