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?)