Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cartoonists killed in France

If you've been listening to the news, then you know that twelve people at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed today. They included five cartoonists, including the magazine's editor. At least eleven others were wounded.

The cartoonists were Charb (editor Stéphane Charbonnier), Cabu (Jean Cabut), Georges Wolinski, Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), and Honoré (Philippe Honoré).

Wolinski received the Grand Prix of Angoulême in 2005. There's a great article about him, and about cartooning in France, here. I didn't know about him. According to a quick Google search, his cartoons seem to be mostly just really racy.

The always-edgy magazine took pride in knocking over revered figures of all stripes, but its treatment of Islam is probably the most controversial. In 2012, the magazine courted outrage among Muslims by publishing cartoons of Muhammad, causing France to close embassies and schools in over 20 countries out of fear of reprisals (and causing the editor to be guarded by a police officer, who was also killed today). The cartoons were derisive, insulting and in at least one case obscene. And even if they hadn't been, just depicting the face of Muhammad is not done by observant Muslims.

But injunctions like that are to Charlie Hebdo like a red rag to a bull -- particularly where Islam is concerned. France (the white part, that is) has a long and problematic relationship with Islam and Muslims (see "The Battle of Algiers" and the entire 20th century).

The shooting has done little to stir sympathy for anyone offended by the cartoons. Both the French and American governments have condemned the shooting as an act of terrorism and as a doomed attempt to stifle free speech. Thousands of people have chanted or posted "Je suis Charlie!" ("I am Charlie!") in solidarity.

There's a big conversation we could have about the role of cartoonists in liberal democracies. Is a cartoonist meant to knock down anything that someone else puts on a pedestal, out of spite for pedestals? Or does there need to be more to it than that? If a cartoonist doesn't take a swing when she sees an opening, even or especially when it would cause an outcry, is she allowing herself to be censored?

Without excusing the slaughter in any way, I think that Charlie Hebdo (and before them, the Dutch magazine Jyllands-Posten) acted in a childish and oppositional way. Someone said "Don't draw Muhammad," and so they drew the most disgusting cartoons of Muhammad they could think of. Yeah, it's their right, but it's happening in a larger context of French people saying Muslims suck, and that French Muslims aren't altogether French. You don't have to hurl insults in someone's face to establish your freedom of expression. And publishing the cartoons didn't exactly advance the conversation between moderates and extremists -- in France or anywhere else.

But that's academic now. Now, things have gone tragic. Now, twelve people are dead -- including four cartoonists. The world is poorer without them.

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