When three gunmen walked into Charlie Hebdo offices Wednesday morning and executed 12 people, eight of whom were journalists, they made a stand against free speech. They attempted not just to silence the voices of those they killed, but also to threaten any others that might make comments or draw things they didn’t like about Islam.
Now, tens of thousands are gathering around the world and around a slogan, “Je suis Charlie,” to protest the violence and make a stand for that golden right to say whatever we want. Paris’ Place de la Republique is chock-full in vigil, and the church squares of Europe’s villages are well-attended. I went down, pen in hand, to join them in Hollywood and make my stand. I lifted my uncapped pen in the air with hundreds of others, and I spoke for the cameras about what we were defending. The gathering made me reflect on the oddity of what that was: inflammatory drawings, designed to outrage for laughs, and a click bait press whose ad driven reality can feel very different than the clear ideal of free speech.
Charlie Hebdo was a satirical weekly newspaper, best know for it’s offensive and (to some) hilarious covers that mocked everything from Mohammed to Michael Jackson, with a healthy sprinkling of politicians. It was part of a long tradition of satire and cartooning in the French media. Charlie’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, aka Charb, believed that satire was the best way to raise issues and make incisive comments about the world that we live in. He was willing to stand up for his right to print what he wanted—after the 2011 arson of his headquarters he told the press “I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.”
But as we rally in solidarity of Charb’s ideals and his activism, it’s important that we keep his work in context. Charb and the seven other journalists and cartoonists assassinated were among the global thousands that are the protectors and greatest benefactors of our free speech. Their work, as a whole, is the lifeblood of the world’s democracy. That much is understood, as the rallies show. But even as we hold up our signs on the squares the sidewalks, we too are guilty of the repression of free speech.
Since the birth of the internet, the press has become increasingly polarized. Satirical factions of it, like the Onion, have become more popular, and other factions have stayed about as sensational as The New York Post has set the bar. This is not a product of a shift in journalistic thinking. It’s a product of market forces. There is more competition for eyeballs in a denser environment (think your screen vs. newsstand), and those eyes are sticking around for shorter periods of time once one earns the almighty click. If you want to attract attention, you have to grab it, and you’ll do better if the reader agrees with you. This is not a new phenomenon, either. Before the wide distribution of major city newspapers, each little town would have two or three of it’s own papers, and they would often publish conflicting and highly partisan accounts of events.
The problem with this environment is that as ideological gulfs widen, it becomes harder to maintain an environment of open speech. We wish the religious right would stop its hateful bigotry, that the progressive left would stop its family-crushing crusade, that the pro-choicers would stop advocating murder and that the pro-lifers would stop hating women. We wish Fox News or MSNBC would fall off the face of the earth. Some of us develop visceral hatreds of Rush Limbaugh or Al Sharpton. It’s not hard, when you stop and think about it, to find your own ideological leanings, and to pinpoint that time you actually hated a sensational journalist that leaned the other way.
That, for me, is what this moment is about. Because while it’s unlikely anybody reading this article actually plans to kill journalists they disagree with, we’ve all committed small actions that were designed to censure. Many of us have trolled websites we disagree with, or participated in campaigns like that which ousted Brendan Eich from his tenure at Mozilla for his support of gay marriage bans. None of us raised an eyebrow in 2006 when the Bush administration criticized Charlie Hebdo for republishing Danish cartoons that mocked Mohammed. In the patriotic fervor of the beginning of our wars, we often suppress voices for peace with accusations of “not supporting our troops.”
The polarization of our press, combined with the satire and sensationalism that define some of it’s factions, means that we are bound to publish some things that will offend. It is our duty to protect the right to speech regardless of how we feel about what is being said. We need to raise our pen in the air for the whole spectrum of thought, and use this moment to reflect on how we are repressing it in our own country.