Charlie Hebdo Massacre Reactions: 'I'm All for Free Speech and Murder is Wrong, But…'


The massacre at the Paris offices of the venerable satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has been met with near-universal condemnation, but a growing chorus of self-appointed arbiters of good taste are going public, following up cursory denunciations of the murders with caveats that Charlie Hebdo is a "provocative," "racist," "Islamophobic," "homophobic" publication who brought much of its trouble on itself.

A satirical cartoonist drew this.
Twitter/Carlos Latuff

Richard Seymour at Jacobin makes this point most succinctly in the final paragraph of his article: 

No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn't line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized "secularism," or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.

Earlier in the piece, Seymour explains why he presents no evidence, or even argument, that Charlie Hebdo is a "racist institution":

I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that — irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist.

Jacob Canfield at The Hooded Utilitarian puts it this way:

Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons.

Fuck those cartoons.

Canfield spends much of his word count sneering at Charlie Hebdo's white editorial staff for having the temerity to satirize Muslims and their prophet, and cites this quote from a BBC profile on Charlie Hebdo's murdered editor, Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier, as evidence that he's a "racist asshole":

Charb had strongly defended Charlie Hebdo's cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

"Muhammad isn't sacred to me," he told the Associated Press in 2012, after the magazine's offices had been fire-bombed.

"I don't blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don't live under Koranic law."

Of the four sentences attributed to Charb, the first should seem obvious coming from a take-no-prisoners satirist, the second is a statement that he understands Charlie Hebdo's humor is not for everyone, the third is a fact, the fourth a refusal to be cowed by violent threats. A pretty low bar for "racist asshole," unless you think that "White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out," a sentiment that imposes a racial barrier of entry to engage in satire on certain groups of people, their politics, and religious iconography. 

Self-described "Geeky Porn Starlet/Lecturer/Presenter/Sex Critical Feminist" Kitty Stryker wrote:

So, I'm generally pretty anti-censorship. I mean fuck, I just worked on a porn where we gently poked fun at the new British porn content laws by enacting all of them in a playful, consensual space. I am a big fan of art, and using humour to hopefully make people think and change their minds.

That said, I do not believe that racist, homophobic language is satire. I think it's abusive, and I think it punches down, harshly and often. 

Later, the "generally pretty anti-censorship" Stryker explicitly puts to words what so many others have danced around:

I don't think that shooting up the Charlie Hebdo office was ethically Right with a capital R, ok? But I do think it's understandable.

Because censorship only comes from conservative moral scolds and the government. Massacring cartoonists is "understandable." These Social Justice Warriors must be very proud to be in the company of Catholic League President Bill Donahue, who yesterday opined:

"It is too bad that he didn't understand the role he played in his tragic death," said Donohue of Stephane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo's publisher." In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, 'Muhammad isn't sacred to me.' Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.

The Catholic League defends its own provocative speech in its mission statement, which they say is "motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment" and that they "work to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened." Like Seymour, Canfield and Stryker, Donahue supports "free speech" but only for some and to a point. 

On HuffPost Live's "Cocktail Chatter," The Daily Beast's David Freelander said "Free speech is about the world of ideas. It doesn't mean that you're engaging in that when you're being deliberately provocative." Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" was deliberately provocative and he learned the hard way about the West's tepid defense of free speech in the world of ideas. 

Finally, USA Today published as a counter-point to its own editorial, an op-ed from "radical Muslim cleric" Anjem Choudary, who skips the mealy-mouthed platitudes about the right to free expression and instead puts the blame on the French government for not stopping Charlie Hebdo from provoking Muslims, "thereby placing the sanctity of its citizens at risk."

This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, "Whoever insults a Prophet kill him." 

However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.

I would argue that lambasting a government for failing to abandon free speech in the face of a murderous heckler's veto is more offensive than any cartoon could ever be. But I am glad to see Choudary's abhorrent views laid bare in black and white to be reviled or defended and debated, peacefully, in the "world of ideas." His rationale that Charlie Hebdo bore a responsibility for yesterday's atrocity is more direct and honest than those who argue that certain subjects should be protected from satire, and that satirists need to qualify by race, gender and class before they take aim at these sacred cows.