Thursday, January 8, 2015

Nobody deserves to die for their art

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has cut to the heart of some pretty big issues and anxieties in the modern world: What are we willing to do to defend our freedom of speech? What is the function of satire in civil society? Why can't some people take a joke? And how can we get along better in a multicultural world?

But before I share my own thoughts, I want to reiterate: Nobody deserves to die for their art.

"Freedom of speech" is an expression that is often used and rarely understood. It means that you shouldn't be jailed (or executed) for saying things that offend others or your government. In many Western democracies, we are free to say awful things about each other, but that freedom comes with an acceptance that there may be personal, career, or even civil, consequences for your statements.

In other words, dental students who joke about raping patients and "hate fucking" peers on social media have the freedom to do so. But their university has the freedom to suspend or expel them, and dental colleges have the right to refuse them accreditation because of what they did. Washington's NFL team has a right to call itself a name that is considered a racist slur against Native Americans. And the public and media have a right to petition the League to make them stop. Radio-Canada has a right to include blackface in their comedy act, and Canadians have a right to tell their public broadcaster that they don't want their tax dollars paying for racism.

Freedom comes with responsibilities, but nobody deserves to die for their art.

Satire is by its nature problematic. In the Western tradition, it is a tool used by artists to make important social commentary, and to bring the powerful down to Earth.

As Steve Martin once said, "Comedy is not pretty." In fact, it's often ugly. When Jonathan Swift suggested that Ireland's poor improve their condition by selling their babies to the gentry as food, he was ridiculing the social engineers of his time, not the poor Irish. But eating babies is an ugly idea.

I grew up with ugly comedy. In the '70s, National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live attacked a racist and sexist establishment by making racist and sexist jokes. Go back even a couple of decades, and The Onion's horrible ableism will make you cringe in hindsight.

But it's art. When The Onion, two years ago, called  9-year-old Quvenzhan√© Wallis a "cunt" on Twitter, it was met with immediate outrage, but it was classic satire—in this case of other media. That doesn't mean you need to like it, or even that you don't have a right to call out what you think is wrong with it. You can insist that The Onion apologize (they did), you can even boycott their advertisers.

But nobody deserves to die for their art.

I don't like some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but they are also satire, and art. My problem isn't blasphemy or irreverence — both of which figure highly in my day-to-day discourse. More, I feel that the moral high ground of "we make fun of everyone equally" is a very privileged one. It assumes the power dynamic between you, and the people you mock, is an equal one. But when a white European makes fun of Muslims and Jews, it's not the same as making fun of white Christians. Even if the artist is an atheist.

Caricatures are one of the ugliest forms of ugly art. They have been used as xenophobic propaganda as well as political satire. But while a  cartoonist will usually focus on the individual features of a figure he or she considers "one of them," when someone of a different nationality or ethnicity is portrayed, ugly stereotypes emerge. I feel that some of the Charlie cartoons were guilty of that, which is why I choose not to share them.

But nobody deserves to die for their art.

Just as we are free to speak our minds, and make our art, we have to accept that some people won't like it. Sometimes, the feedback we get surprises us, because we didn't intend offence. But the most ignorant thing a person can do, in this situation, is to accuse the person who objects of "political correctness" and "not being able to take a joke."

The social internet should be an unprecedented opportunity for us to expand our minds and our culture. Negative feedback is a learning opportunity. You can choose to continue to deliberately offend or hurt people with your art, if you so choose, but to dismiss their opinions as humourless is not helping you be a better person.

When I was my son's age (10) schoolyard (and mainstream media) humour was racist, sexist, homophobic, and every other thing that I now rail against. We've all grown up since then.

But nobody deserves to die for their art.

What I really love about social media is the opportunity to be exposed to a much greater diversity of opinion than I ever could have imagined possible. If we could only take a moment to listen to each other, before reacting, we could understand each other much better.

I don't believe in god, but I have gained respect for the spirituality of others, including Muslim friends. I have friends who feel that sharing the Charlie images is their way of protecting their own freedoms, and I understand their outrage.

The one thing we can all agree on is that nobody deserves to die for their art.

Some related reading:

What Muslim Scholars Say on Paris Attack 
Muslim cartoonists react to the massacre (in French)
In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism

And in case I was not being crystal clear: Nobody deserves to die for their art.


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