Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

We’re NOT All Charlie: A Little Self-Censorship Isn’t a Bad Thing

00 charlie hebdo cover. 13.01.15


L’affaire Charlie Hebdo has reached its dénouement, leaving a score of people dead and many controversies in its wake. Firstly, off the bat, let’s establish that we believe there should be no death penalty for expression of opinion, no matter how repellent. Lately, all too often in the news, we’ve seen losers with access to heavy weapons displaying their angst at the point of a gun with tragic consequences.

 That said, other questions present themselves in the wake of this series of tragedies. The Berkeley Daily Planet’s Eclectic Rant columnist Ralph Stone, who’s also an attorney, put it succinctly in this comment, 

“The killing of 12 people at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo is appalling. I hope that we’d soon catch and prosecute the perpetrators. The fact that 12 people are dead over cartoons by white male cartoonists is horrible. Free speech is an important part of our society and criticism of Charlie Hebdo cartoons is also speech. However, we should kill no one over cartoons. However, the statement JE SUIS CHARLIE (I AM CHARLIE) ignores the magazine’s history of xenophobia, racism, sexism, and homophobia. I sympathise with the victims’ families and I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish hateful cartoons, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be Charlie”.

Someone who blogs under the name of Winston Alpha pointed up that in 2008 Charlie Hebdopulled (read: censored) a satirical piece about former President Sarkozy’s son. Philippe Val, the editor of Charlie Hebdo then, ‘agreed that the piece was offensive and told its author to apologise’“. Winston also noted that France has a law that bans denying that the Holocaust took place, not exactly consistent with American standards of free speech. (I’d ask for permission to reprint his whole post, which is pretty good, but we have a firm requirement that writers who appear in the Planet must attach their real names to their opinions. As a card-carrying literature major, I appreciate Winston’s homage to 1984 in his choice of pseudonyms, but my grandmother always said to consider the source before reacting to something someone says. If I don’t know who he is… he says he’s young, that’s all… I don’t know how to calibrate his ideas.)

A key point in any discussion of free speech is to remember exactly what the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The usual interpretation infers that the reference to Congress includes all the federal government, but note that the First Amendment refers only to government action. In other words, it’s about what the government says we may do, not what we should do. A French-American friend said that like many, he grew up with Charlie Hebdo, and that the killings there are like assassinating Jon Stewart would be in this country. Well, not exactly. Much of what the magazine publishes seems to go farther over the imaginary line in the sand than the Daily Show ever has. Presumably, there was never any Holocaust denial, or they would’ve faced prosecution, but they seem to have gored every other sacred cow.

Winston said, “The same paper that was apparently more than content to ridicule Islam again and again, backed down and quickly censored a piece that featured a single joke about Jews”. I can’t confirm that, however. The Jewish Daily Forward, amongst others, showed some of Charlie’s cartoons lampooning Jews. Another grandmotherly favourite was, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you”. Many nonetheless do believe that the wrong words (or cartoons) will do harm. How much self-censoring should publications do? Obviously, we must make editorial choices of all kinds all the time, but it’s not all censorship… even on the internet, there’s limited space and time.

Our neighbours at local blog Berkeleyside.com wrestled with the question of what kinds of reader comments they should publish. I admire their generosity in devoting a lot of space to largely anonymous and often remarkably ill-informed reader musings, and I shudder to think what they must read only to reject, including presumably the kind of “xenophobia, racism, sexism, and homophobia” that many criticise Charlie Hebdo for running. I’m not so generous, so, over the years, I’ve saved myself a lot of trouble by not having an open comment feed. We only publish under our Public Comments heading pieces sent by e-mail that are both signed and literate. However, this doesn’t solve every problem however… we got ourselves in a peck of trouble in 2006 by running a letter in our print paper from a literate English learner who signed his own name. Without a hint of satire, he opined that some Jewish people had brought trouble on themselves, with examples from Israel and elsewhere… that opinion offended many, understandably. Even though it was difficult for us, and, perhaps, ultimately, even caused the demise of the print Planet, I deeply appreciate the fact that for the most part words were the only weapons objectors used to attack us for this seeming transgression. I’m a charter subscriber to Justice Brandeis’s dictum that the remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech. Except for some graffiti, a few eggs thrown at our door, and one guy who proudly claimed that he’d urinated on our garage, we escaped physically unscathed. Instead, those offended by the piece employed boycott (against our advertisers, urging others to do likewise), divestment (cancelling their own ads) and sanctions (ginning up nasty letters signed by rabbis and public officials from Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates up and down the ladder), but no one came into the newsroom with a machine gun.

Lampooning religion instead of criticising it in straightforward prose is either better or worse… I’m never sure which. I’ve long since given up going to church, in fact, most of the time I’m profoundly annoyed at all three desert religions, which are indistinguishable to the rational observer at more than forty paces, yet, I’m offended when I see a bunch of mostly old white guys in San Francisco dressing up like nuns to mock them. After all, these are women who educated other women as diverse and valuable as Nancy Pelosi, Fredericka Von Stade, Barbara Lee, Dianne Feinstein, Lady Gaga… and me… why should they be a target? It feels sexist, even though the guys in question happen to be gay. “Hate crime” law, more popular all the time in France and the rest of Europe, is a slippery slope. Banning expression of unpopular, wrong, downright crazy, or even vicious ideas is like putting a tight lid on a boiling pot. Eventually, with enough heat, the lid will blow off… better to have a little vent to let out the steam, or you’re in for trouble.

It’s easier to keep an eye on what the KKK is up to if you let them march through town instead of making them hide out in the woods. Sentiments like those expressed by our 2006 op-ed writer are much more common now than they were then, and the world needs to know that such ideas are abroad. However, that doesn’t mean that we all need to imitate Charlie Hebdo by running insulting cartoons to denounce the murder of its staffers. Self-censorship has gotten a bad name, but there’s nothing wrong with using good judgement and perhaps some empathy for the feelings of those not like ourselves. I agree with the slogan mistakenly attributed to that sharp-tongued anti-Islamic (and anti-Christian and anti-Jewish) deist Voltaire by his biographer, ”I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. I hope I won’t need to do that, however. For the next few days, editorial pages will be full of navel-gazing, especially in those publications who decided not to join the stampede to publish the drawings. Me, I think I’m one of those who can say with a clear conscience, in the French I learned from the nuns, je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.

12 January 2015

Becky O’Malley

Editor, Berkeley (CA) Daily Planet




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