Walking the tightrope between censorship and free speech

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, activist and arts communities came together under the slogan "Je Suis Charlie." Cartoon by Kit Collins

In the days following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, in which the magazine’s editor Stephane Charbonnier, four cartoonists, three editorial staff of the magazine, an editor’s bodyguard and a guest at the editorial meeting taking place in the building were killed by terrorists (two policemen were killed by the gunmen as the three suspects fled the scene), artists created an outpouring of support through the only means that seem to fully encompass all emotions during this turbulent and uncertain time — art. Banksy posted a cartoon to Instagram in response, simply captioned “RIP”; Chilean political cartoonist Francisco J. Olea created an image of a makeshift gun made out of art supplies and titled it, “¡A Tomar Las Armas Compañeros!” (Translated it reads: “To arms, companions!”) Other artists across the globe followed in this vein, playing off of the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” by transforming pens into guns, or having battles between artists and gunmen depicted in their art pieces. French President Francois Hollande went on television to say, “Our best weapon is our unity.”

And then, of course, there was the response from the magazine. Their Jan. 14 issue, which printed three million copies — up significantly from the average readership of 60,000 — featured another picture of the prophet Muhammad, this time crying and holding a sign that reads “Je Suis Charlie.Above the picture reads the caption, “Tout est Pardonné” (“all is forgiven”). Notably, the magazine’s previous depictions of Muhammad — especially the provocative issue that came out Feb. 8, 2006 which reprinted 12 cartoons of the prophet originally featured in a Danish satirical magazine called Jyllands-Posten —  were viewed as blasphemous by members of the Muslim community. Editors of the magazine received death threats after the publication, but continued to create provocative content, drawing both widespread praise and intense criticism.

As provocative as the cartoons are — provocative enough to not be reprinted or shown online by large American media outlets and publications (see the NYT and NPR’s responses) — no person interviewed in this article expressed the sentiment that the cartoons warranted a violent response. Viewing the issue through a purely political lens would be to cut short the conversation. Tensions in France between Muslim immigrant communities and larger French communities are long-rooted in histories of colonialism and racism. Yet, the French are distinctly different from other audiences due to their long history with cartoonage.

Many questioned why a magazine would print cartoons that could be viewed as both hateful and discriminatory. Many still questioned how a magazine would continue to publish cartoons of the prophet after such a tragedy. But to understand Charlie Hebdo, one must contextualize satire in France, which has a history that dates back at least to the French Revolution

Elizabeth Foster, assistant professor of history at Tufts whose expertise is in modern France and the French empire, and whose research focuses on France and its relation to its West African colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, discussed the role that satire has played in France for centuries.

“Biting satire in France has a long history,” she said. “One of the things that I think is important for Americans to recognize is how extreme or how irreverent the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were. I think they’re the kind of thing that would be shocking to a lot of people in America…”

Foster brought up examples of French cartoonists dating back to the French Revolution, the Dreyfus Affair and other major historical events.

“You can go back and look at the French Revolution … While there were sort of high-brow critiques of the old regime in France, a lot of the media at the time was sort of dominated — the sort of illegal media of the time — by pornography, cartoons of the queen caught in flagrante with priests,” she said. “There are arguments out there that this kind of thing helped to desacralize the French monarchy on the eve of the Revolution…”

Foster also explained the different roles that cartoonists have in modern French culture compared to American culture.

“The [cartoonists] that were killed in this incident were well-known to French people — not that Charlie Hebdo had a huge circulation — but cartoonists are kind of famous and enjoy a celebrity status in France in a way that they don’t here,” she said.

Foster added that the French history of satire and cartoonage paved the way for stronger biting works in France.

“[Charlie Hebdo] was definitely extreme and purposefully provocative in a way that was outside the, kind of, mainstream of cartoons, but at the same time, there’s a long tradition of this sort of thing,” she said. “But it’s deliberately provocative. Islam is not the only target, although I would argue it is a favored target. But there is some irony in seeing François Hollande coming out and defending [Charlie Hebdo], as he was a frequent target. But all sorts of political figures, religion — any religion — sort of came under fire.”

Amahl Bishara, assistant professor of anthropology, who works on media in the Middle East, commented on the power of images and the responsibilities of artists and cartoonists in society.

“Cartoonists and artists … have a distinct set of responsibilities or burdens or concerns to think about, and they, I’m sure, are very aware of it because the power with the visual is certainly different than the power of the word,” she said. “Images travel perhaps more easily, because they don’t have to be translated in the same way … And then obviously, in Islam, there is a tradition of thinking of certain images as blasphemous images of the prophet Muhammad.”

According to Bishara, artists need to consider their relationship with the image they are publishing.

“For example, if you’re a Muslim person in a Muslim country and you publish an image that’s perceived of as blasphemous, then you’re pushing up against authorities that are ruling over you, in some way,” she said. “If you’re a French cartoonist and you publish an image of Mohammad that could be conceived of as blasphemous and/or as hate speech, you are actually kind of pushing up against — you’re actually acting in opposition to a minority culture, a minority group in your own country that, we know, there’s a history of racism being used against them [Muslims] and colonialism against them.”

Bishara also explained how media outlets can make their audiences as inclusive as possible.

“How to create more inclusive audiences is often about creating more inclusive media producers, making sure that staff of these institutions are as diverse as they can be, making sure that things are accessible to wide audiences,” she said.

Professor Emeritus Madeline H. Caviness, who has returned to Tufts this semester to teach the courseIconoclasm and Iconophobia,” which she has taught with Eva Hoffman for many years, spoke about the power of humor in French culture.

“So you’ve got both sides, if it’s really a culture clash then I think that there are many in people in France who do self-censor, we all do that of course,” she said. “But they also regard humor as something above and beyond that, that part of their freedom is to be able to make fun of absolutely everything. The subtitle that appeared on the cover of Charlie Hebdo was ‘Journal Irresponsable’ — ‘Irresponsible Journal.’ That’s so French.”

While many have criticized the French satirical magazine’s use of provocative and arguably offensive cartoons, there is also inherit value in French satirical publications. Professor Caviness describes the impact that French satirical magazines had on her when she was a student in Paris in the midst of the Algerian War, and conflicts broke out between French civil police and students.

“I was a student in Paris in 1960-1961,” she said. “During that year we had the Putsch — which was when the paratroopers in North Africa decided to come and take over the [French] government because Charles de Gaulle was beginning to negotiate to allow Algeria to be free … Paris was terrible. There was an extreme right group that didn’t want freedom for Algeria and they had the upper hand with violence and they set off what they called bombs plastiques … And you never knew where or when they were going to go off … It was unpredictable. It was terrifying. There were sirens all the time. Police were on edge. The French police shot people down dead … Some journalist friends of mine had their newspaper censored and taken off the stands because they’d tried to publish a story, which I don’t doubt was true, that Algerian prisoners, in the hands of the French civil police, had had their hands tied behind their backs and thrown in the sand. They were found in the sand, with their hands behind their backs, dead.”

Professor Caviness explained the important role that satirical magazines had in her community to maintain morale during this period of turmoil.

“The one thing that we could look forward to and get a laugh from was the other great satirical paper, Le Canard Enchaîné — ‘The Chained Duck,'” she said. “And it still flourishes … Canard Enchaîné survived the censorship. The predecessor [magazine] of Charlie Hebdo did not. So see, it’s a very powerful history and, believe me, humor can really help you through a tight spot.”

Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, has written books on the relation between linguistic meaning and intentionality, the nature of self-knowledge, secularism and identity. His current work is on the relation between practical reason and politics.  

Bilgrami addressed the question of how art, now and in the future, might be informed from this incident. 

“Some, but not all, artists are joining in the chant of ‘Je suis Charlie’ to support the freedom of expression,” Bilgrami told the Daily in an email. “Even those who support freedom of expression might find that slogan a flamboyant irrelevance. I recall a biting remark by the conservative journalist Bernard Levin when Norman Mailer made a similar remark (‘I am Salman Rushdie’) after Khomeini’s fatwah against Rushdie:  ‘Mr. Mailer’s flesh is willing but the opportunity is weak.’  I think artists vary in their responses and in the lessons they take away from efforts to censor them, even vary in response to the murderous atrocities of this kind of terror. For every Mailer in the aftermath of the Rushdie controversy, there was a John Le Carre who expressed qualms about what he described as Rushdie’s brashness and insensitivity.”

According to Bilgrami, satirical publications like Charlie Hebdo differ in audience and context from their American counterparts. 

 “[T]ake the canonical figure, Voltaire,” he said. “As many have pointed out, he was deeply anti-semitic. But at that time anti-semitism was pervasive, both in the church that Voltaire was attacking and in critics of the church like himself. So that prejudice of the great satirist was ignored by those who admired him. But times have changed. Right now a phobia about Islam is pervasive, so Muslim sensitivities are not as important to respect, no more than Jewish sensibilities were important to respect for centuries, in fact until a few decades ago. There is also the plain fact that satire is more effective and does not come off as prejudice when its targets are internal to the author or artist’s background and culture, such as in Voltaire or more recently, say, in the films of Arrabal or Bunuel. But for a white Frenchman to trash the cherished beliefs and values of Muslims, the very people whom they have also targeted in a racist social policy pushing them into impoverished banlieue, is hardly likely to have the same effectiveness.”

Artists are now faced with the dilemma as to whether or not to self-censor in light of their audiences and the cultural contexts in which they exist. Art must be viewed in context — historically, demographically and culturally — and to fail to do so does a disservice to the art, the artist and the audience. Artists and audiences must now walk the tightrope together to create safe spaces for art, and for dialogue and discussion of issues of content to continue.