The otherwise obscure French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hedbo, is making headlines again, and the most recent controversy seems to have the press divided on the politics of free speech and provocation.
Last fall, the paper’s offices were firebombed in what was widely assumed to be retaliation for an upcoming issue “guest edited” by Muhammed, with a provocative cartoon on the cover and the caption, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” There was no proof Muslims were actually the perpetrators, and to date, no one has claimed responsibility, and there have been no arrests.
The perpetrators could have been Muslims, or people who wanted Muslims to appear guilty of the crime, or as Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover cartoon, said:
Let’s be cautious. There’s every reason to believe it’s the work of fundamentalists but it could just as well be the work of two drunks.
Casting caution aside, the media continued to report the story as if Muslims were known to be the culprits, and this irresponsible reporting was by no means confined to the looniverse. Sadly, most of of the global media joined in recklessly indicting Muslims. Even Gawker, a paper with articles that are often sympathetic to Muslims, carried the misleading and presumptuous headline, “The Islamists Are Going After Fake Newspapers Now.”
The firebombing seemed to embolden Charlie Hedbo’s editors. A few days later, the paper published an even more provocative cover, portraying a similar cartoon depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, this time engaged in a sloppy kiss with another man. Fortunately, this provocation failed to provoke, and the story fell from the headlines.
Now that protests have erupted around the world in response to an amateurish anti-Muslim film posted on Youtube, Charlie Hedbo has seized the opportunity to add fuel to the fire with another round of provocative cartoons. Facing criticism, the paper defended the cartoons, citing free speech.
Indeed, the cartoon is protected and legitimate free speech, even if it is a deliberate provocation.
However, that doesn’t mean the decision to publish the cartoons is above criticism, or that anyone who objects is somehow curtailing the paper’s free speech rights. In fact, criticism and counter arguments are also an important part of free speech rights. Peaceful protests are also a perfectly legitimate response–as long as they remain peaceful.
Even among staunch free speech advocates who defend the paper’s right to publish the cartoon, there is some question of what constitutes good judgement, especially under present circumstances. The Guardian is conducting a poll, asking the question:
UK Guardian: Are Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the prophet Muhammad a necessary stand for free speech or a pointless provocation?
At the time of this writing, more than two thirds say the cartoons constitute free speech, and less than a third say it is a provocation. The question itself seems a bit misleading, however, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Publishing the cartoons is arguably both legitimate and protected free speech, and also a provocation, though not necessarily “pointless.” The obvious point seems to be drawing worldwide attention, once again, to an otherwise unremarkable French satirical newspaper.
The debate over the boundaries of free speech will rage on, but as Garibaldi said in his article following the firebombing of Charlie Hedbo offices last fall:
You have the cartoonish hook-nosed-goofy-smirking-Ayrab-Mooslim with some weird looking turban on his head.
Charlie Hebdo knew what it was doing, they wished to provoke, they created a buzz and got world-wide media attention for their magazine which had little following outside of France.
A proper response by those offended or upset would have been to peacefully protest, or to satirize the Charlie Hebdo publication, or to do as most have done and simply ignore it.