Logical arguments for and against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

I woke up yesterday to horribleness. My Twitter feed was filled with people tweeting and retweeting breaking news about an attack on a publication in France that left many people dead. It didn’t take long to conclude that these people died because of things they drew.

Later, and again this morning, there was a lot of debate over whether other media should republish the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo created that so offended Muslims, particularly those that depicted the prophet Muhammad. Depicting the most revered figure in Muslim history is forbidden by many in that religion, because it could lead to idolatry.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, many of its cartoons have been denounced as racist toward Arabs and other races associated with Muslim countries. The publication regularly pushed the boundaries of good taste and respect, sometimes intentionally just for its own sake.

So is it appropriate to republish them? Arguments have been made on both sides. French newspapers in Quebec generally republished them out of solidarity with the people who lost their lives for the sake of satire. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis makes a passionate argument in favour. CBC’s Neil MacDonald makes a more eloquent argument:

English media, including my employer the Montreal Gazette, chose not to out of respect for Muslims who had nothing to do with this attack. The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief explained the decision, so did the New York Times and CBC, and the Gazette’s editor-in-chief has been doing the media rounds explaining its decision.

The rhetoric on social media has been particularly vitriolic, accusing those who published the cartoons of being racist, and accusing those who didn’t of caving to terrorists.

I’m not here to cast judgment, merely to lay out the arguments on either side. But before I do that, let’s lay down some things we all agree on:

  • No one deserves to die for making fun of someone else, for saying something discriminatory, or for offending anyone or anything.
  • Freedom of expression means the freedom to decide for yourself whether you will or will not publish something.
  • Denouncing a decision related to freedom of speech is an exercise of that same freedom of speech unless it somehow prevents the other person from expressing him or herself.

Now, onto the arguments. If you come up with good ones that aren’t on these lists, put them below in the comments and I’ll add them.

Arguments in favour of publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

  • This is what these people died for. Continuing self-censorship does a disservice to their memories.
  • The public can’t get a complete idea of the story without seeing the cartoons at the centre of it.
  • What about non-offensive cartoons depicting Muhammad? This isn’t about racism, this is about being scared of religious backlash.
  • Where does it end? If a religion finds the colour red to be offensive, would we be obligated to refuse to use that colour out of respect?
  • We talk about and publish all sorts of things that offend people, while explaining that they’re offensive. People are smart enough to understand that it’s not an endorsement.
  • Because regardless of everything else, we must stand on the side of free speech.

Arguments against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

  • If publishing the cartoons would have been offensive before, that shouldn’t change because some people died.
  • The story can be explained without having to show the cartoons.
  • We don’t know which cartoons (if any) are the cause of this attack.
  • The cartoons are racist, and we should not propagate hate speech out of a sense of solidarity.
  • If this had been a similar story, but the offending images were signs that said “kill all [N-word]s”, would we be obligated to publish them uncensored or would simply describing them have been sufficient?
  • We could publish the less offensive cartoons, but that would be misleading, because it’s the most offensive ones that led to the attack.
  • The media routinely censor disturbing imagery, including video of a police officer being shot dead in this very story. How is that different?
  • Because Ezra Levant. (Seriously, what’s changed since the Jyllands-Posten affair that he’s no longer the only one who wants to republish the cartoons?)

19 thoughts on “Logical arguments for and against publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

  1. Bill

    “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
    ~George Orwell

    If Muslims, devout or otherwise, wish to ban these comics in their own Muslim controlled nations, be my guest.

    But in the West, the separation of church and state means they’re crap out of luck if they think that anyone won’t have a go at Muhammed.

    Other religions learned this a long time ago. Our societies thrive on liberty and a hell of a lot of “taking the piss” out of things.

    Je Suis Charlie!

    Reply
  2. Kevin

    We violate the rules of multiple religions all the time. I’m certain everyone in the world has worked on *somebody’s* sabbath.

    So what makes this rule about drawings of one long-dead man so special?

    If anyone is truly offended by a non-vulgar drawing of Mohammed, they need a psychiatrist, not indulgence.

    Reply
  3. Another Steve

    It must be clarified that Charlie Hebdo did not just go after Islam. It satirically went after all religions, political extremism, and anyone or any group that could be an “easy target”. It is not unique as many European countries in particular have publications similar to Charlie Hebdo’s format.

    Those that view the publication as racist are the extremely religious that also lack a sense of humour – the same qualities that make up your common terrorist. I say we should publish more magazines like Charlie Hebdo in Canada and worldwide, and have more TV shows/cartoons along the lines of South Park. The world needs to laugh (and laugh at ourselves as well).

    Reply
  4. Dilbert

    I can’t imagine a journalist actually asking the question. Seriously, it’s a pretty simple thing:

    I may not agree with your speech, but I will die to protect your rights to it.

    The only thing “racist” in any of this are the narrow minded Islamic people who cannot accept that not everyone is like them, and that not everyone will fall in line with their rules and their beliefs. They look at the rest of us as not even worthy of a seat on the bus, let alone in the back.

    Well, f-them and f- their silly rules. If you can’t take a joke, don’t come out to play.

    Reply
    1. Kyle

      Interesting that you censor yourself in a post about freedom of speech. Perhaps papers who choose not to publish those cartoons are employing the same sense of decency that you are.

      Reply
  5. Johanne

    First, I don’t see how these cartoons are racists. Muslims don’t represent a race but a religious group. Most of all, Chatlie Hebdo denounces religious integrism. Sorry, but Cbc and Anglo newspapers are off track on this.
    Second, as a carholic raised person, I couldn’t care less if Muslim cartoonists or of any other religion made fun of the Virgin Mary or Jesus. It’s not their religion, it does not mean anything to them! Why should I be offended by what fun they make of my religion?

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  6. Alain Castonguay

    Not an easy subject. As Jean-François Nadeau wrote in Le Devoir on Thursday, Charlie Hebdo sold more each time they were bashing muslims & djihadists. They were as harsh on Jews and Christians, and it was not changing their sales. So maybe they did too much, but it’s not a reason to kill them.
    Furthermore, as was saying Bill Maher at Jimmy Kimmel on Wednesday, the level of sensibility of Muslims about any drawings on Muhammad is far greater than in any other religious group. And like Ezra Levant said (and it’s the first and last time I do agree with him on any subject), if every other medias had published the first cartoons made by the Danes in ’05, they couldn’t send a killer squad in every newsroom, do they?

    Reply
  7. It's Me

    “The cartoons are racist”

    Really, what makes you so sure that they are, that you state it as fact?

    First of all, one would assume it’s target is a religion, and a religion by it’s very nature makes it not racist as religion is not a race.

    Second, racism is defined as believing a race is superior to another. Satire isn’t necessarily by its nature a show of superiority over another. One could argue that it is, but I don’t subscribe to that notion.

    I’m so tired of racism being thrown around every which way these days. People use it for everything, when there is no racism involved, which does a disservice to those instances where there is actual racism. It’s now grown into this catch-all term and go-to defense for the left whenever someone is offended by something and need something to blame it on. Call it racism and belittle the person so that they can’t be taken seriously afterwards. In this case however, maybe just ignorance over what the word racism really means.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Really, what makes you so sure that they are, that you state it as fact?

      It’s not a fact, it’s an argument.

      First of all, one would assume it’s target is a religion, and a religion by it’s very nature makes it not racist as religion is not a race.

      The argument is that the cartoons are racist in the way they depict Arabs and Africans who are Muslim.

      Second, racism is defined as believing a race is superior to another.

      That’s one definition. Another is prejudice and discrimination. If you don’t believe the cartoons are racist, that’s fine, but the argument that they are remains an argument regardless of whether you agree.

      Reply
      1. It's Me

        “The argument is that the cartoons are racist in the way they depict Arabs and Africans who are Muslim.”

        So only Arabs and Africans are Muslim? That’s like depicting a Christian in a satirical way and it being racist against whites. That’s stretching pretty thin.

        Making fun of a religion is not racist. It may be something else, but it’s not racist.

        “That’s one definition. Another is prejudice and discrimination.”

        There’s no discrimination going on here. They’re making fun or something, making fun or something is not discrimination. I don’t see how being prejudice would be considered racist either.

        Either way, it’s besides the point, because this is a religion, not a race, so it’s not racist.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          So only Arabs and Africans are Muslim?

          In the cartoons, yes.

          I don’t see how being prejudice would be considered racist either.

          I think a lot of people would disagree with you on that point.

          Reply
          1. It's Me

            “In the cartoons, yes.”

            If they made fun of Christians and every time they did it, they used a white guy, that would be racist against whites? Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

            Reply
  8. Mario D

    It goes beyond publishing a cartoon. At first it`s a way to protect our way of life and our freedoms of expressions. For someone to decide that i will not publish anything that they chose unfit to be published without me having my word to say about it is unconceivable. Those medias just said that it is O.K. for anyone to decide what will or will not be seen in their pages. They preferred to protect their own hidden agenda instead of acknowledging the human beings that lost their lives so they can enjoy their comfy MTL job. It`s disgusting.
    Solidarity . Does that mean anything anymore ? Standing up for our values and freedoms.

    Those who chose the coward route should be ashamed.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Those medias just said that it is O.K. for anyone to decide what will or will not be seen in their pages.

      Yes, that’s the very definition of freedom of expression.

      They preferred to protect their own hidden agenda instead of acknowledging the human beings that lost their lives so they can enjoy their comfy MTL job. It`s disgusting.

      I don’t recall any media outlet failing to acknowledge that people died. I’m also unsure what hidden agenda you think they have.

      Reply
  9. Richard

    There is certainly a right not to publish. However, the arguments made by people like David Studer of the CBC and Silvia Staed of the G & M are unconvincing . The story at this point is just not complete without showing the cartoons.

    What is interesting is Studer`s view that part of the CBC`s mission is to promote tolerance and respect and therefore to be sensitive to Muslim sensibilities about publishing images of Muhammad. Although he closes by saying the CBC`s job is to report the story and not take sides.

    Essentially the argument is that we should not offend Muslims because they are easily offended. How very English-Canadian.

    Media worldwide published the cartoons in solidarity so major English language media in Canada, the US, and the UK look craven, with some exceptions (the National Post, Sun Media, even the Montreal Gazette published some in its online edition on Jan. 7). US media which published one cartoon with Mohammad and a rabbi with Muhammad blurred out were particularly ridiculous.

    There is also a cultural aspect to this. French-Canadian journalists tend to be more connected to France and French media. Many knew personally the journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. So for them it is a question of solidarity.

    What is way off the mark is the accusation of racism. Charlie Hebdo is a left wing publication which has long ferociously stood against the anti-immigrant and racist element in French society.

    Charlie Hebdo has been equal opportunity in its offensiveness. Their cartoons have been particularly vicious against Catholics and Christianity and they have been sued several times by Christian groups. Google the cartoon about the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost in an orgy. Or the Pope in a gay relationship. Jews and others have not been exempt from their vitriolic humour.

    News media`s primary role is to inform even at the cost of offending.

    Reply

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