Not since September 2001 have I been so disappointed by the news media. Now, don’t get me wrong. Day by day, facts don’t protect us from confused reporting on important issues, from Ottawa to Ouagadougou. But the Charlie Hebdo massacre really screwed things up.
When people in the media can’t talk smartly even about their own business—my business—on the biggest international conflict of the moment, a nasty sense of despair sets in. Sure, everyone was Charlie Hebdo in the days after the event. Yet almost no one in the media wanted to let us see its cartoons. Beneath the showy support, there were a lot of people whispering that they really shouldn’t have published those nasty, juvenile caricatures.
On the radio, I had to deal with CBC reporting every hour on the hour that the Parisian weekly’s cartoons mocked Mohammed, and mocked Muslims, a gross misreading of the actual work. The English arm of the CBC wouldn’t show us a single Charlie Hebdo cartoon, to let us make up our own minds on their worth. The National Post’s decision to share them made it a rare exception among North American newspapers.
Sure, they are pretty broad. Typical is one of Mohammed (we presume) declaring: “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.” You could call Charlie Hebdo the Mad Magazine of political cartooning. But the targets of the cartoons that gave such great offence are specific. The obsession of some Muslims that there shall be no graven image of the prophet Mohammed is one of them. Mentally deranged terrorists who justify their sacrilege by attaching it to the thing they claim to be most sacred are another target. People who harrumph about cartoons are yet another.
So it came as a relief this week to watch a very smart documentary about contemporary political cartoonists facing censorship and threats of violence. Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy, which screens at the Vancity Theatre on Saturday (February 7), provides the context people need right now.
I’ve also found some context in my own work as an editor and writer. In 1997, I was required to appear before a conciliator with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal because an evangelist from Abbotsford believed that I had published, as editor of the Georgia Straight, cartoons that encouraged discrimination against Christians.
Sometimes you have to look for examples where the stakes are a little lower to gain perspective.
Any conversation about Charlie Hebdo has to start with what exactly is the point of a satirical cartoon. It’s intended to provoke. It regularly extends the margins of social commentary. It distils complex issues in ways that appeal to—and challenge—the heart as much as the head. Cartoons are the place we go to hear what so many are thinking but are afraid to say.
Cartoons violate taboos. “When I arrived in Mexico,” Cuban exile Angel Boligan says in the documentary, “a colleague told me that there were three topics that were off limits: the president of the republic, the army, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. That’s my work program.”
Cartoons are also reductive commentaries on familiar current events. Which is why so many people—from Muslim fundamentalists to righteous members of the West’s political left—misread the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They incorporate Muslim iconography in lampoons of terrorism, or censorship, or the European political right. They usually rely on events of the moment for their resonance.
By way of explanation, I offer a manufactured parallel example. Would a cartoon depicting Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh wrapped in a tattered American flag—he did argue that government was betraying the country—be fairly characterized as an attack on Americans everywhere? Of course not, because North Americans have adequate context.
But in the case of Charlie Hebdo, we sit half a world away without understanding a different European context, the subtle references to its current events, and sometimes even the cartoon captions. So what we’re left with is caricature. And racial caricature in particular can stir up trouble.
A former Georgia Straight illustrator known for his pointed grotesqueries of marginal white men once told me he did not draw non-whites because it wasn’t worth the grief. In the documentary, Le Monde cartoonist Plantu (Jean Plantureux) talks about a very rare instance when, late in the day, he was called into the editor’s office because his cartoon for the paper had the potential to give offence. The problem? He had drawn a female public figure as an elephant.
A Le Monde supplement once ran a cartoon that depicted the Pope sodomizing a child. Should one take that literally? Is it a form of blasphemy? Or is it a metaphor for the Catholic church’s refusal to confront the abuse committed by its priests? Is that sort of daring not the job of a cartoonist?
Reading cartoons requires some basic knowledge and analysis. They are precisely not meant to be taken literally. So when we choose whether to run cartoons, should we base our decisions on the feelings of those who would take them literally, and who don’t have the skills and knowledge to interpret them properly?
One of the cartoons that brought me and illustrator Dirk Van Stralen before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal features two men nailed to crosses. One is wearing running shoes. The other says “Oo-ooo cross trainers! I just love irony.” Another featured the puppet Burt declaring “This week’s Sesame Street was brought to you by the number 7, and ‘Jesus, the guy on the T’” Others were more political: “Good news, Mr. President. We’ve just finalized a list of the remaining countries Jesus would bomb.”
The one that caused the greatest offence to the complainant was of a coat-check style “brain check” at the entrance to an evangelical church. It was inspired by a real event: a Lower Mainland church pastor leading the a congregation in a recruitment-oriented variation of “Bringing in the Sheaves” rewritten as “Bringing in Chinese.”
At the hearing, the complainant compared the cartoons to the seeds of the Holocaust. He said we made Christians look stupid, and said he had some friends at Regent College who had very high IQs. The cartoonist, who grew up in a Calvinist household, responded thusly: “I have some friends at Regent College, too. I’m going to be doing a workshop on cartooning there next month.”
That pretty much knocked the legs out from under the complainant. He was a nice man. He and I bonded over some common health troubles, I asked what would make him happy, and he said he just wanted us to be more sensitive to the concerns of Christians in the future. I said I would, and we were done.
It was easy to make that commitment in part because, in the words of Dirk Van Stralen, the brain check cartoon “was a shitty cartoon”. The context was not sufficiently clear. Which brings us to another issue: not every cartoon is brilliant. Not every cartoon perfectly hits its mark. But whether or not a cartoon is good is not a standard that can be applied when we talk about free speech. Free speech becomes an issue when it provokes powerful interests, and it also becomes an issue when we don’t get things quite right. The quality of the speech is not the issue. It’s the intent.
Intent can be a difficult business, but it’s a manageable and central consideration in many laws. When we get into issues of hate speech—and I personally work from the assumption that everybody has a right to their own opinion—intent is key.
When we get into the business of stereotyping, it gets more complicated. Who holds power becomes an important issue. After the Christian cartoon complaint, I had to ask myself if, in our largely secular society, Christians could call themselves an aggrieved minority.
Of course, the cartoons were published in an in-between time. It had been more than a decade since the province of Ontario charged a movie theatre with blasphemous libel for showing Monty Python’s piss-taking on Christianity, Life of Brian. And it was a decade before Stephen Harper would be elected prime minister.
For Muslims living in the West, their lack of power is a real issue that deserves our careful consideration. The Muslim faith is no scarier than any other religion, no matter how many Islamist fanatics are in the news right now. Yet carelessness in the face of the resulting fear and ignorance is a real problem.
However, some Muslims, or Christians, or Jews, just take offence. To borrow a phrase from the documentary, “For them, there is only blasphemy.” The Straight received several indignant letters to the editor before the brain check cartoon. In the hour I spent surveying Charlie Hebdo cartoons online, and learning about their context, I didn’t find anything grossly different than Dirk Van Stralen’s cartoons. In fact, Van Stralen’s are sometimes more explicitly critical of religion itself.
For Muslims living in the Middle East and North Africa, of course, life can be an intractable stew of fascism, religious conflict, and social oppression. The lives of cartoonists in Israel and Palestine and Tunisia, all of which are explored in the Cartoonists documentary, make North American issues seem trivial. We need to stand up for their freedoms, and we don’t do that well by censoring our cartoons based on how we fear they might be received half a world away.
And we can’t choose our speech based on how it might be misread by people too lazy to properly consider the context and the intent of what’s being said. There are plenty who will, on the right and the left, in houses of worship and on the street. As social misunderstanding grows internationally and the violence it causes spreads, we don’t need to censor provocative thinking. We need to encourage people to listen better and think carefully about what’s being said.
Social disarray is infectious, and it’s spreading. “When people start being scared and when the fear is unjustified, that’s a big concern,” said French cartoonist Plantu. In Europe, he added, “fear is settling in.”
Clear and open thinking is our disinfectant. Shoving the Charlie Hebdo cartoons under the mattress doesn’t protect us at all.