Charles Campbell: News media screwed up big-time on Charlie Hebdo cartoons

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      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 peoplefrom Muslim fundamentalists to righteous members of the West’s political leftmisread 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 flaghe did argue that government was betraying the countrybe 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 speechand I personally work from the assumption that everybody has a right to their own opinionintent 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.

      Cartoonists: Food Soldiers for Democracy screens at the Vancity Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (February 7). A panel discussion will follow, with myself and former Province cartoonist Dan Murphy. With a little luck on bandwidth, Dirk Van Stralen will Skype in from Wells, B.C.



      Ruth LeLarge

      Feb 6, 2015 at 7:26pm

      Great thoughtful article. Charlie Hebdo was and is some of the smartest political content in France. For more context of Charlie cartoons there is a website which is very good.


      Feb 6, 2015 at 8:18pm

      So how is it that there isn't flaming outrage by Christians at the insult in the cartoon shown above?

      Yo, Grant

      Feb 6, 2015 at 9:50pm

      It helps if you read the articles instead of just looking at the pictures.


      Feb 6, 2015 at 10:53pm

      I really miss the Van Stralen cartoons in the Straight. Is it time to bring him back...?

      Dr. Jack

      Feb 6, 2015 at 10:54pm

      To Grant:

      Because they are NOT barbarians with a mindset rooted in the Seventh Century!!

      Ian Boothby

      Feb 7, 2015 at 2:57am

      Sorry to read another story of a shameful over reach by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.


      Feb 7, 2015 at 7:55am

      It was disappointing CBC censored those cartoons and made us google them up. It's tricky living in a world balancing the richness of the dialogue that arises from our different perspectives, and, those easily influenced through images and the written word to go overboard, hurting and killing others.

      Too bad more times than not, it's always about the love of God that has shed so much blood among us.


      Feb 7, 2015 at 9:54am

      It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
      Mark Twain
      Sometimes the exercise of restraint is as important as pushing the limits.


      Feb 7, 2015 at 10:48am

      I wouldn't really fault the tribunal here, which had a complaint-based conciliation process they have since eliminated. And hey, it was non-confrontational and ended in a desirable result.

      Now, further to the core conversation someone sent me a link to a story quite critical of Charlie Hebdo Some have been critical of my view, here and on my Facebook page. One has made a thoughtful argument that the cartoons should not be published because they will inflame moderate Muslims, which will make a global cultural conflict harder to resolve. This is a much better argument than that the cartoons are hateful.

      Which cartoon is hateful, and in what way? I've seen some shitty cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. But I haven't seen a cartoon where I’m convinced the intent is to mock Muslims generally, or Mohammed specifically. If the issue for people is that we shall not draw or publish images of Muslims rendered as cartoons, or that non-Muslims shall not draw Muslims, then let's say that and have that conversation. But let's not broadly characterize all the cartoons as hateful or as mocking Muslims without making the case with the specifics. I’ve seen cartoons that gave me pause, but when I read the background and understood the target better, I came back to the issue of whether it's OK to draw cartoon-style renderings of Muslims.

      I don't want the cartoons to be published just because. I want a discussion of the cartoons that is based in fact. I’ve yet to be convinced that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are any more hateful than Dirk Van Stralen's. The most significant difference is that Dirk grew up in a Calvinist family, and he's drawing people of his own race. That's a real issue in the case of Charlie Hebdo. And as I’ve said it deserves careful consideration.

      But people take it much further. The article above equates Charlie Hebdo to a publication that was "one of the most virulent advocates of the persecution of Jews during the 1930s". That's a kind of overkill that far exceeds anything I've seen on Charlie Hebdo itself. Certainly it’s a charge worth supporting by discussing the evidence, but the story offers none. If we can’t ground our conversation in facts in the West, then we’re in real trouble.

      Charles Campbell


      Feb 7, 2015 at 12:36pm

      Then consider it further, Mr. Campbell ("The most significant difference is that Dirk grew up..."). Can you consider the history that France has with its Muslim population, its Muslim youth in the banlieue, the deep and very troubling history of the colonial war in Algeria? Can YOU please, as a person in the know, equip yourself with more sensitive nuance grounded in historical fact and context before rather pre-emptively announcing you want to have a wider conversation without doing enough to establish adequate, solid bases for that conversation? The point, sir, is that power dynamics and violence attend to all the cultural instances that manifest and exemplify that power. So sure: let's all get a ferocious and fundamentalist attitude about a non-specific but glorious-sounding Freedom of Expression and ignore the fact that Skarkozy called the descendants of the colonial oppressed of France "scum" or that a Nazi collaborator brutally quashed a protest over the Algerian war in 1961 to the point that bodies were floating up in the Seine for days afterwards. The scars of history on top of which you're going to invoke a whiny plea to "freedom"? That said, the zealotry of ANY religion is to be resisted. Clowning IS a dangerous job, and we should value it. But please have a care to know what arena you are stepping into.