Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Free Speech

I’ve been mulling for a few days over how to express my – often contradictory – thoughts about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. For a novice cartoonist, this is pretty tricky, when you need one image to encapsulate a range of ideas and emotions. So forgive me that this one I am writing instead.

Some issues are simple. Murder is never defensible. Nothing can justify murdering people in their workplace - no ideal, no religion, no amount of inequality. Let me be clear on that.

The issue that I have been wrestling with, however, is that of free speech. I worry that we are oversimplifying this issue and being distracted from many of the conversations we should be having about it. I feel that many people are confusing their understandable outrage at a mass murder with the core issues we need to be discussing. These are not simple issues.

I wanted to pen my reaction at the news. I thought about a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ cartoon – just the words. However, while I appreciate the intention of ‘Je Suis Charlie’, I don’t feel I know enough of what Charlie Hebdo produced to say that. In fact, what I do remember of them from a year in France and what I have researched since tells me that there is an awful lot I didn’t agree with. Some things were incredibly offensive and smacked of racism, sexism and homophobia.

However, on one hand, it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone else, think of their work. Free speech is the right to say it anyway, and goodness knows there are times we are all relieved that there are people brave enough to question the unquestionable, to scream the unspoken. Sometimes no matter how much you disagree with someone’s opinion, article or cartoon, it has achieved an all-important result in opening up the discussion, in addressing the elephant in the room or airing the dirty laundry before the wet, dirty mess ‘spontaneously’ combusts.

I think that if I want to opportunity to express myself freely, then I need to extend that to others, even if I don’t agree with them. But then, on the other hand, there are limits that I give myself. I try to not ridicule other people’s religion or the foundations of their culture. I try to not produce cartoons that are sexist, homophobic or non-inclusive. But these are my cartoons and that is reflective of my beliefs. Should I be allowed to impose such restrictions on others’ work?

However, here’s the thing. I do think that sexist, racist, homophobic cartoons are harmful and dangerous in a way that goes beyond just expressing opinion. They can be used to justify, unify or validate people’s existing beliefs or even hatreds. They set up minority groups as ‘other’  But more than that, they contribute to the tide of messages that we are surrounded with. They contribute to the normalization of these beliefs and ideas and when there is sufficient quantity of these messages, this becomes the dominant culture that we live within. Worse, it becomes self-perpetuating, where normalized messages of hatred, bigotry and ridicule fosters this way of thinking, which creates more messages that this is the norm and on it goes. And this is where the rubber hits the road on this issue. We only have to look back to cartoons through history to see this. They did not exist in a vacuum. While they may not represent the values and beliefs of all, they pinpoint the beliefs and ideals of many in the time and place that they were created and published:

[To see some examples of what I am talking about, please go to http://mulattodiaries.com/tag/blackface/, or http://www1.assumption.edu/ahc/1920s/Passingrevisedversion.html to see cartoon portrayals of African-Americans through history and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Peril to see cartoons regarding treatment of Asian Americans and go to http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/sturmer.htm which is an archive of anti-Jewish cartoons from Germany leading up to WW2. These are just a small selection. ]

Hearing a few journalists, commentators and cartoonists this week, you really could be mistaken for thinking that articles, commentaries and cartoons do exist in a vacuum - that once published they fall into some sort of abyss, independent of the world around them, free of consequence, responsibility and effect. And yet we know that is not the case. Each published work is of and goes into the society in which we live. What we put in will change someone’s point of view, make them laugh, make them think or even (for those more talented and better known artists and authors) effect social change. That’s why we do it. I don’t think we can reasonably accept the good consequences but use ‘free speech’ as a shield when those consequences aren’t positive.

 More directly, if we believe in the right of free speech, does that mean that we as a society free authors and illustrators from any reprisals, reactions and consequences arising from their choices and actions? And how is that fair, if they have chosen their actions, and those people who are the object of their satire, bigotry or ridicule are not being protected from what is published? How are the rights of gay people being protected when homosexual acts are used to debase, degrade and insult people? How are the rights of people to practice their beliefs in dignity protected when their prophet or god is portrayed committing such acts? In all of the discussions, articles and postings I have seen regarding this week’s events, this issue has not been broached. Not once, and we are at risk of losing the opportunity to bring it to the fore.

If there are some things we would not say in public because it is hurtful, impolite, extreme or bigoted, then is it unreasonable to extend this widely accepted code of conduct to what we publish? Is the issue then not one of free speech, but one of consequence? If we would not say things in social situations because of its consequence, are we being reasonable to not expect consequence from what we publish? Let me reiterate – I am not condoning murder or physical threats, abuse or intimidation under any circumstances. What I am questioning is accountability, responsibility and the legacy we leave in our societies.

Inequality and injustice exists within all of our countries. Don’t be confused by travel agent brochures and fairytale narratives. Satire, criticism and ridicule, while it may be spread far and wide through a society is more likely to exacerbate injustice or bigotry where it already exists. It will always have a wider and more forceful impact on the ostracized, segregated, diminished or disenfranchised because it normalizes the beliefs that keeps them as minorities - those sometimes blatant, sometimes insidious beliefs and ideas that prevent people from finding employment, studying or having the same accesses to services and relationships that empower, support or actively benefit other people. It contributes to the lump of defining characteristics we assign to people of that minority group, which dehumanizes and depersonalizes, stripping away personal identity, human qualities and difference. Consider the depictions of people in the above cartoons and similar cartoons of that era and those before. I’ve often felt that a cartoon showing a man doing something foolish is often widely viewed as a cartoon showing the behaviour of that man, but a cartoon showing a woman doing something foolish is often held up to show what is wrong with women.

                                                   Gary McCoy

This quickness to generalize is captured beautifully in this cartoon:

                                                           XKCD cartoon “how it works”

Further, there are some articles, cartoons or commentaries which aren’t open for rebuttal, either because of lack of access to mainstream media or distribution channels, or because they don’t attack ideas, opinions or ways of doing things. They attack the core or the undeniable and generally unchangeable characteristics of a group – that some people have dark skin, love people of the same gender, have a religious belief or have breasts. An idea can be rebutted or refuted - such as a political policy, a book, or an opinion piece – but something that attacks the essence of a way of being, the essence of self, cannot. And yet is the most hurtful attack that we can launch.

I notice in Australia that many of those who protested changes to Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful for someone to publicly "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate", were also at the forefront of the right to free speech argument. In some ways, this is a cognitive dissonance between two opposing ideals. Many people instinctively believe in the key qualities of this Act, however, if we believe people shouldn’t be able to write whatever bigoted ideas they come up with, then we are opposing truly free speech.  In juggling these two, we are at risk of defending people’s right to free speech as long as it agrees with our own opinions.

As I said, this argument is not simple and straightforward. I don’t know the answers, especially as I find I have my own mélange of competing ideas that need to be thrashed out. But I can say that not questioning the effects and limits of free speech and oversimplifying the issue brings its own problems. We need to be careful not to confuse our belief in the right to not be murdered, with the issue of free speech. As a world community, we need to not let a single catchy slogan prevent us from considering this issue more deeply.