Being Charlie Hebdo

January 8, 2015
/ Author: Rick

Censorship issues have not been high on my list of things to become upset about. It’s not that I don’t care about them. I care very much. After all, I have experienced first-hand what can happen when someone doesn’t like what I’ve written. But much of my energy goes to dealing with broken criminal law issues, like broken law enforcement, and our broken laws, and our broken judiciary, and our whole broken concept of “justice” in the United States these last few decades. And freedom of speech does not often factor directly into that.

Of course, as Mark W. Bennett can tell you – because he’s fought an attempt to criminalize speech, and won – this could change.

Yet, despite not being high on my list of topics about which to blog, who can ignore the persistent attacks of the last few weeks – especially the recent one in Paris – against those whose worship, or lack thereof, is not approved by the attackers? Not me. 

I’m certain that by now there are few intelligent people who have not heard about Paris, and Charlie Hebdo, and the fact that the killings occurred over cartoons.


Yes, they were usually racist cartoons. Charlie Hebdo, near as I can tell, does not always seem like the most sympathetic poster-child for freedom of speech. Ironically, since (again, near as I can tell) Charlie Hebdo‘s historical underpinnings were anti-establishment liberalism, at least one writer writes – and some “tweets” I’ve read on Twitter also say – that Charlie Hebdo cartoons were, well…here are a couple quotes:

Here’s what’s difficult to parse in the face of tragedy: yes, Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical newspaper. Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.

And, after including several examples of Charlie Hebdo cartoons,

These are, by even the most generous assessment, incredibly racist cartoons. Hebdo’s goal is to provoke, and these cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking: France’s incredibly marginalized, often attacked, Muslim immigrant community.

Other stories paint a slightly more sympathetic view. And the editor of Charlie Hebdo, quoted in a Mashable story, had this to say about their allegedly anti-Muslim cartoons:

We are only criticizing one particular form of extremist Islam, albeit in a peculiar and satirically exaggerated form. We are not responsible for the excesses that happen elsewhere, just because we practice our right to freedom of expression within the legal limits.

Today, Charlie Hebdo is perhaps rightly considered a martyr in the fight for freedom of speech. I know a lot of people I admire, and friends, believe that, and are writing about it.

From Marc Randazza:

A group of lowlives attacked and killed at least twelve people at the offices of a satirical magazine for no other reason than they disliked its sense of humor. They believed that their religion trumped anyone’s right to mock it. They believed that their umbrage meant that they had the right to take the life of 12 people who participated in mocking it.

And Eric Turkewitz,

There’s no doubt that the horrific assault yesterday on the sharply satiric French political magazine Charlie Hebdo is not just an assault on all writers, but an assault on all that believe in free speech.

It doesn’t matter if we approve or not of the content of the magazine’s speech. That has nothing to do with the right to publish it.

And (of course) Scott Greenfield,

Whether the gun is in your hands or the hands of police sent out to enforce the laws you demand makes no difference. We are all Charlie Hebdo. Some of us are the people who would express ideas that offended the fanatics, and others are the fanatics who want us dead.

You’ll note that the article titles all contained some variation on Being Charlie Hebdo. Another thing they share in common is that they all reproduce the images from Charlie Hebdo that have so offended some extremists within Islam that they find themselves unable to act as civilized human beings, and instead go out and kill the creators, or purveyors, of the offending images.

They do this to show that they will not be intimidated, as I intended….

Okay. I’ve now been staring at my computer monitor for close to two hours, possibly longer.

I’ve said before that one of the reasons I blog is because writing is a way of thinking. This morning, before I started writing, before I started thinking beyond thinking about a few of the above-mentioned blog articles which I’d read, I temporarily changed my Twitter profile picture. I’ve actually never done that before, but I wanted to make a deliberate statement about freedom of speech, and the refusal to be intimidated. The image I chose was – deliberately – one of the mildest I could find of the covers from Charlie Hebdo.

One Twitterer called me on it.

Iago Cheney Twit

Now, I still don’t fucking know exactly how to respond to that. Obviously, I can support free speech without passing along offensive cartoons. But that was not the initial point, as you will recall from what I said above. (Hint: It was about not allowing oneself to be intimidated by murderous asshats who are willing to kill when they are offended by people “speaking” – especially through cartoons – things of which they, the murderous asshats, do not approve.)

And to engage in just a tiny little logical fallacy here – tu quoque – as I not-so-sweetly pointed out to Sugar at the time, her own Twitter feed no doubt offended even more people, but for different reasons. If she’s going to criticize me for being offensive, I’m not going to take her seriously.

But I’m not actually a big fan of logical fallacies, however much I may on occasion fall prey to them myself.

Then came this, from a Twitter friend:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 3.41.09 PM

And, later, this:

Mirriam Seddiq Retweets

And around that same time, I started writing this blog post. Which is when I started thinking about things more seriously. And I thought about one of my friends. He’s a guy I care about a great deal. We went to law school together. We were both – at different times, of course – deans of Delta Theta Phi. We’re both in private practice: he maintains a kind of specialized family law practice, and I, of course, am a criminal defense attorney. I refer clients to him; he refers to me; sometimes he handles family law issues connected to a case for which I’m handling criminal law issues. We talk frequently.

And he’s Muslim. Religious. Though that didn’t stop him from standing up for me when my wife and I were attacked (verbally, not physically) one year over Hanukkah decorations at our house.

What would he think about me posting the images, I wondered?

So I called him. We had a good conversation about what was going on, a little about the fall-out, and I told him about this post I’m trying to write here. I asked how he would feel if I posted the images here, not because I approved them, but because I was writing about them. “What if I provided examples?,” I asked.

“Well,” he said. “It would offend me, because in our belief system you don’t make such images.” But he went on to say that he recognizes that he lives in a pluralistic society. “If you feel that you need to include the pictures. Then you should include them. It’s not going to change anything about the way I think about you.”

Just so.

And, you know, I don’t have to include them. Not to talk about free speech.

After thinking – yes, yes! that is what I love about writing blog posts, and it’s why they sometimes take me hours – I don’t even have to do it to show that I’m not afraid of murderous asshats. Not to trivialize this, but it’s the same reason I wear pink a lot, even though there are people in the world who see that as some kind of reflection on my masculinity. I like pink. And I have no need to prove to anyone that I’m masculine (whatever that means, anyway).

In the end, I don’t know what to think about Charlie Hebdo. But I do know what I think about those who would kill because a cartoon offends them. And what I think pretty much mirrors what Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of the mosque in Drancy, a suburb of Paris, France, said:

They have sold their souls to hell. This is not freedom. This is not Islam and I hope the French will come out united at the end of this.

This, too, I know: My Muslim friends are not responsible for the excesses that happen elsewhere, just because some murderous asshats try to squash our right to freedom of expression within the legal limits.

And so, finally, this too, I know: I do not need to offend my friends, to fight our enemies.

Fighting our common enemies doesn’t require Being Charlie Hebdo.

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  1. Joe Dunman says:

    My comment on Twitter was mostly geared toward those arguing that there is some kind of moral imperative to republish the images from Charlie Hebdo to “show those damn Muslims we’re not afraid,” rather than support the freedom of expression. It seemed very odd to me that people embracing Charlie Hebdo as their own – nay, as themselves – would not act similarly had another organization, such as Stormfront, been targeted by murderers.

    Many of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo personally offend me, but I can’t read French and nobody has done much to explain the context of them. So I am disinclined to republish them as a show of solidarity when I don’t really know what they’re trying to say. I reserve my endorsements for topics I know more about.

    And that’s the hitch for me – republishing the Hebdo cartoons seems fine to me if you’re doing it to add context to the killings. “They were killed for their cartoons, here are the cartoons.” But much of the republication was done as a “we’re not scared of you dirty Muslims” statement that I do not support and didn’t want to associate myself with.

    Ultimately, republish or not, it’s a personal call and one I can understand for those who choose to do so. I do not presume to be the speech police. I can only decide what to do for myself.

    1. irrelevant says:

      I actually appreciated your tweet. It was an insightful objection, and sent me back to Twain’s essay on lynching and moral cowardice. You are correct that much of the reposting that’s being done is unprincipled, either for the sake of cheap applause or done in viciousness masquerading as moral superiority, and most of those people would abandon the field if they thought posting the cartoons would earn them social censure from people whose opinions they value.

      You’re also right on an emotional level. In the hypothetical scenario where the hate-speech laws pass and they crack down on the neo-Nazis, I don’t want to be the guy known for mirroring and linking Stormfront. I don’t even want to be the guy mirroring and linking Stormfront anonymously. I hate the idea. I’d probably refuse. But in that scenario, there is a clear moral imperative, and one I absolutely never want to be tested on. If I must be tested on it, the one thing that could make it easier would be if I lived in a society where people understood this as a principled stand rather than a statement of endorsement.

      Which brings us back to real life, and the point where I disagree with you. Neither of us wants to have to stand up for Nazis. Neither of us wants to have to associate ourselves with vicious people. But when you make the choice to repost the cartoons or not based on how it personally reflects on you, you’re making it even harder for people to take the principled stand.

  2. What cartoons from Charlie Hebdo are racist, sexist, and homophobic? I don’t read french, so it’s hard for me to do a simple search for these.

    The most common example of racism I’ve seen is the “rassemblement bleu raciste” cartoon that is a racist depiction of a politician, but the translated words and context show that it’s making fun of a group that said racist things about her, not supporting the racism.

    The most common example of homophobia I’ve seen is the “l’amour plus fort que la haine” comic that shows themselves making out with muslims. I can’t imagine how that’s homophobic.

    It seems that attacking the prophet is considered racist, on it’s own by a lot of people. Those people are idiots. Here’s an example of that:


    Even in a fresh-off-the-press, glowing BBC profile of Charb, Hebdo’s murdered editor, he comes across as a racist asshole.

    Charb had strongly defended Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

    “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he told the Associated Press in 2012, after the magazine’s offices had been fire-bombed.

    “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.”

    – See more at:


    Just like attacking Israel isn’t anti-semitic, attacking Mohammed isn’t racist.

    Of course, you have the absolute right to not want to associate with Charlie Hebdo’s comics, but your reasoning for doing such amounts to giving into a heckler’s veto. Even worse, it’s a misinformed heckler’s veto.

  3. irrelevant says:

    I don’t disagree with your decision (you’re too distant from the event to have any responsibilities), but I entirely disagree with your approach to reaching it. You made the choice all about how it might reflect on you, and that misses the issue entirely. It is not important to the survival of freedom of speech that you cheer freedom of speech, it is important that attempts at censorship fail. Drastically and universally, even when the censors are the law or martyrs.

    The noun in “polite civilization” is not “polite.” The cowardice that various news organizations are being accused of for censoring the cartoons is not the cowardice of preserving their own safety against physical danger, it’s the cowardice of putting their reputation before their duty.

    1. First off, I’m not a news organization.

      Second, you have apparently missed the point that freedom of speech does not require you to broadcast views you normally would not broadcast, just because someone else tried to silence the speakers.

      I’m not going to fault those who decide, or have decided, to share the images. I’m simply deciding that I don’t need to do that just to be considered someone who fights censorship. You can disagree. I don’t actually care if you do, or not.

      1. irrelevant says:

        Yes, your not being a news organization is one of many reasons I said you don’t need to feel a personal responsibility in this case.

        But on your second point, no, I disagree. There is an ethical obligation for someone to sit on juries, and there is an ethical obligation for someone to vote, and there is an ethical obligation for someone to propagate messages that were silenced by force.

        Fortunately, we have great systems for spreading information, and between human curiosity and diversity of opinion that obligation is usually handled by people voluntarily spreading the message around, even for fantastically offensive or boring messages. So it may not be your responsibility this time. Or in any other real life event you’ll encounter. But in the worst case scenario, where Joe Dunman’s Nazi pamphleteer gets murdered and you’re the only other one in town who owns a printing press, you do have that responsibility, and you’re just going to have to suck it up and explain that you love civilization more than you hate Nazis.

    2. Eric Turkewitz says:

      Hey Irrelevant:

      Since you feel so strongly about this, have you published the photos on your blog? Why not? And if you don’t have a blog, why don’t you create one so that you can do it?

      And why do you post anonymously?

      Is that how you personally show courage and defend free speech while you lambast others?

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