Like everyone I’m shocked by the events that unfolded in Paris on Wednesday. As I write at least a dozen people have been murdered at the French offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, apparently because it courted controversy by publishing cartoons satirizing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
As a screenwriter who spends much of his time sitting in what I assume is relative safety in front of my laptop at home, it’s deeply scary that a cartoonist or journalist, also sitting in front of their laptop in an office in Paris, can be killed at his desk for drawing cartoons or writing satire.
And as a writer who likes to tackle edgy themes, usually via comedy, I feel especially shocked to see cartoonists gunned down by deluded maniacs as a direct result of the satirical images that have penned. Personally I can’t draw at all (I was going to use the obvious phrase “can’t draw to save my life” here but given the grim connotations decided against it) so I’m impressed by anyone – including my animator/artist partner The Floridian – who has this skill. The talent of the cartoonist is not so different from that of the moviemaker/screenwriter: using minimal dialogue and a strong visual image to sell an idea or point of view.
I started thinking about some parallels with The Interview controversy last month. As we know, despite the threats no one (G-d/God/Allah willing) has yet to be injured or killed as a direct result of The Interview or the threats made against movie theatres that planned to show it, even though the hackers specifically promised a “bitter fate” to those who chose to go see the movie. “The world will be full of fear,” they said.
I’ve seen The Interview and I think it’s pretty good. Its satirical viewpoint is somewhat muddy; it can’t decide whether to criticize the North Korean regime or the USA, so thematically it’s a little all over the place. But if you like that kind of humour (I do) then the film is laugh-out loud funny, albeit in an anally obsessed “bromance” kind of way.
Charlie Hebdo had also been threatened numerous times, and indeed its offices were destroyed in a firebomb attack in 2011 a day after it carried a caricature of the prophet Muhammad. But now, chillingly, those threats have been realised and people have died.
Any writer, or illustrator, or cartoonist, or journalist, or animator, or film maker who produces controversial or satirical material and sends it out into the world can and will expect some to be offended by their work – indeed offence to its targets is fundamental to most satire.
But we should defend to the death the rights of satirists to keep producing this material, and to keep making us laugh.
Before today I was only vaguely aware of Charlie Hebdo, and I suspect for many of you reading this blog the same was true. You may well not have seen The Interview. You may think that cartoons mocking religion or films that fictionally blow up the head of the North Korean leader are in poor taste. And you may well be correct.
But this is about our right to free speech. If these rights only protected inoffensive comments that everyone agreed with (is there ever really such a thing, anyway?) then we wouldn’t need them.
Terrorism is about creating fear, and that is exactly what the Sony hack achieved last month, and it’s also what the attack on Charlie Hebdo achieved today. It made me think twice about posting a Charlie Hebdo cover on my blog. But then I thought – fuck it.
Fear of what might occur made those movie theatre chains pull The Interview. The sad thing about terrorism is that it really does work in its creation of fear. We all fear that we could be the next victims, however small the odds might be.
In a 2012 interview with ABC news, Charlie Hebdo’s editor and cartoonist, Stéphane Charbonnier, said this:
“Our job is not to defend freedom of speech but without it we’re dead. We can’t live in a country without freedom of speech. I’d prefer to die than to live like a rat.”
Stéphane Charbonnier died today defending that freedom of speech.
Despite our fears, we are all compelled to defend it too.