Saturday, January 10, 2015

Commentary on Charlie Hebdo

The buzz last week was about an attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people.  Charlie Hebdo is a sort of French equivalent to Mad magazine, and the attack was in response to satirical cartoons targetting Islamist extremism.

I don't usually have anything to say about news stories like this--my primary comment on almost any tragedy is "that's bad."  You won't even get a "how horrible!" out of me because frankly 12 deaths is not a whole lot compared to other faraway stories which get comparably little coverage.  As for the attack on free speech, the reader may compare it to the French ban on pro-Palestinian protests, which has been in place since July.  One has to adjust their emotional response to account for selective virality bias.

It seems that other people have different comments to add.  In fact, the issue has split my Facebook friends, with a lot of atheist friends hammering on about free speech, and queer friends saying free speech yes, but Islamophobia.  Here is a representative image from American Atheists, and here's a representative article from the other side: "In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism".

That last article claims it is obvious that the cartoons are Islamophobic, but it's hard for me to judge since no translations are offered, and the English examples in the same article seem pretty weak.  I guess I don't care enough to look up translations, much less do the necessary research on the context.

However, I agree with the article that we should feel free to criticize the cartoons even in the wake of the attacks.  Jason Rosenhouse points out that if it were a neo-nazi magazine under attack, we'd still talk about freedom of speech, but we'd also feel compelled to say how much we disagree with the neo-nazis.  If some people genuinely feel the cartoons are islamophobic, it makes sense for them to say so even while decrying violence.  The reason American Atheists does not criticize the cartoons is not really because they think they think the cartoons are above criticism, but because they obviously agree, sufficiently, with the cartoons.

Nonetheless, some people think it's inappropriate to talk about any of the context surrounding the cartoons, lest we disrespect the dead.

A useful comparison can be drawn to the concept of derailment.  If I start about talking about the difficulties of women or queer people and you say, "but men/straight people also have problems let me talk about them", that's derailment.  Because you're effectively preventing me from talking about what I want to talk about in my own space without obnoxious interruptions.

Is it derailment to talk about how bad the cartoons are, when the cartoonists are fresh in their graves, and the foundation of liberal society is at stake?  I don't think so.  When a tragedy goes viral, we basically end up having a public conversation about it. If a particular topic is "derailing" the conversation, then there is no place for anyone to talk about that topic.  In a conversation supposedly about free speech, this goes against the spirit.

I think there is plenty of room in a public conversation for people to have many spaces with many topics.  For example, even if what I say here is demonstrably terrible and stupid, it doesn't prevent you from having a more productive conversation elsewhere in your own space.