Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Expression in Art

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It has been only two weeks since twelve people were killed at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo by two gunmen. In the aftermath of the tragic events, there has been an outpouring of emotion throughout the world. Among these have been many peaceful protests in support of the magazine and the victims of the attacks. However other reactions have not been so sedate with anger being directed toward the magazine and its depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. With such strongly held views on both sides many questions about free speech have been raised. Most notably, when it comes to satire–whether in writing, art, or any other form–how far is too far? Does an artist’s right to freedom of expression trump the rights of those that might take offense?

In the United States the answer would seem to be a resounding and clear yes. After all Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press are featured in the First Amendment. In our history, revolution, protests and challenging the status quo have played a large role in shaping the country’s character. In turn the arts have been utilized to inspire and bring about change. In writing we have numerous authors including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, Jack Kerouac, Maya Angelou and many others whose voices and experiences changed the way we looked at the world and each other. In theatre we have Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” (which was famously temporarily shut down by the WPA to avoid government and union restrictions), Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” which features one of the most poignant commentaries and critiques of racism “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” and of course boundary pushing works such as “Hair” and “Rent.” American protest music has a long history from early colonial protest songs like “Revolutionary Tea” (which celebrates the Boston Tea Party) to the anthems of Pro-Union workers, to the music of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. Thus attempts at censorship can and have often been met with resistance from the courts and the general population.

However, as some have pointed out, things get a bit more complicated when we consider practices that we seem to hold in contrast with our ideals. In an article from The Huffington Post, writer Pia de Jong noted the muted response to the shooting in the United States. She believed the reason for this lies in the country’s multi-cultural roots stating, “Self-censorship and hypocrisy are the main instruments that keep the many groups away from each other’s throats.” She also noted that unlike the free for all of European Press, the media in the US is very much in line with political correctness (de Jong). This view was echoed by columnist David Brooks who wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “If [Charlie Hebdo] had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.” The media’s coverage of the tragedy seems to confirm these points as many newspapers and all American news networks have chosen to censor or simply refuse to show the offending artwork (Bankoff).

Obviously what happened at Charlie Hebdo is a tragedy. No one deserves to die over a picture, or any other piece of art for that matter. Moreover, I appreciate the ability of satire to expose hypocrisy and injustice within society. However, as an artist I couldn’t see myself going out of the way to offend a group (or groups) of people the way Charlie Hebdo does. In the end there is probably no clear answer to that question “how far is too far?” Instead it is dependent on all of us to (as David Brooks so eloquently wrote) “…maintain that delicate balance between the standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.”

Works Cited and Bibliography

Bankoff, Caroline. “Some Newspapers and All Major American News Networks Decide Against Showing Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad Cartoons.” Daily Intelligencer. NYMag, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Brooks, David. “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.
“The Cradle Will Rock.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Jong, Pia De. “When Charlie Met Charlie.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Levs, Josh. “10 Killed, Churches Torched in Protests over Charlie Hebdo – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Schofield, Hugh. “Massacre at French Magazine Office.” BBC News. BBC, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.