“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire
Today Charlie Hebdo is making the news once again with the publication of its “Survivor” issue depicting a cartoon of a weeping Prophet Muhammad. After a horrific week for France which has seen the acts of murder, manhunts & a mass “unity rally” being played out in real-time for all of the world to see. #JeSuisCharlie became the most popular hashtag in Twitter history as the argument of “Freedom of Speech” was debated clearly in cold blood.
Being from London, I vividly remember the 2005 bomb attacks. A friend of mine, Chris “Njoya Diawara” Small lost his life in an explosion that went off on the train that he boarded. It’s awful, it’s gut wrenching. Despite any of my self-proclaimed “tolerant values”, I’ve been there before & seen how it manifests: the first emotion is fear, the next emotion is hate. Security inevitably gets amped up, more black & brown faces inevitably get stopped & searched. There are more inevitable calls for tighter immigration & more Muslims are inevitably dragged onto TV to profusely denounce violence & abate our fears.
Staring at the front cover with its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, it fascinates me. How can such a simply drawn cartoon be at the epicentre of such a tragic storm? I find myself caught between two sentiments: one the one hand, I appreciate that the staff at Charlie Hebdo had to honour the spirit of their fallen colleagues. You can’t have millions of people supporting your right to “Free Speech” & then back down from exercising that right. But on the other hand, you can’t characterise the Prophet Muhammad without offending Muslims and why would that be an admirable intention? It forms an interesting quandary.
As a black man, I ask myself “How would I feel if today’s Charlie Hebdo’s cover had a picture of a golliwog or just had the word ‘nigger’ emblazoned on their front cover?” Would I be able to applaud the daring satire & the bold statement of “Freedom?”. Or would I be unable to get past the fact that a group of white cartoonists were flexing their pen-muscles & exercising their right to ridicule my race? And how would I realistically feel towards people who told me to lighten up & laugh along?
Every joke requires a set-up & a punchline, from satire to slapstick. So if the set-up excludes me, isn’t the joke is likely to exclude me as well? If Charlie Hebdo printed a golliwog edition today, some would see it as: an amusing caricature that’s set-up within a sophisticated use of irony to deliver an acidic punchline. Yet I might only see another remnant of slavery reminding me of a painful link to an ever-evolving chain of oppression. If the set-up excludes me, how can I be realistically asked to partake in the joke?
It could be argued that the violent actions in Paris were born from previous violent actions & not just a bunch of drawings within a small publication. It’s never a single straw alone that breaks the camel’s back, it’s an avalanche of hay. Even with all the pain that the 7/7 London bombings caused 10 years ago, I long realised this. We (as citizens of the West) have no idea what atrocities our governments have committed abroad in the name of “Freedom”. So when these tragic terrorist incidents occur, we’ve got no frame of reference as to what gave birth to them. We only see the cartoons & the jokes, not the drones, the torturing & the bombings. Our media conveniently exclude us from the set-ups so we never fully understand the punchlines.
But it’s always easier to come back from words, ridicule, insults & satire, no matter how cutting or raw. It’s harder to come back from burying your loved ones. Nobody deserves to die over some f**king cartoons & my friend didn’t deserve to die just going to f**king work! As a poet I fundamentally believe in the idea of “Freedom of Speech”, that’s why Voltaire’s quote rings through to my very soul. “Freedom of Speech” allows for dialogue & a healthy exchange of ideas & it must be defended. So let Charlie Hebdo print what they want, let Muslims voice their disapproval & let’s try & understand all sides to this catastrophic tragedy without tearing each other apart.
Sometimes I wonder how the world would react if we knew that a meteor was going to wipe us all out. Would mankind resolve its incessant bickering so we can live out our remaining days & just chill? Or would we still be waging dumb wars on each other, until the final curtain falls & the lights go out?