The shooting of writers, editors, and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week should be remembered by every writer, and everyone in publishing, because it’s an attempt to shut up people who want to tell stories and influence the culture.
I represent a lot of suspense writers. Imagine one day you’re sitting at your desk, writing the latest bomb-in-the-briefcase story featuring a con man and a bad cop, when suddenly some nut bursts in, yells something about your stories pulling people away from thinking moral, uplifting thoughts, and tries smashing your computer. I represent a lot of Christian writers. Imagine one day you’re at a signing at a Family Christian Store, when you’re interrupted by a violent atheist who wants to stop everyone from reading about God. I represent several Catholic writers. Imagine coming home to find your place defaced because some crazed Protestant disagrees with your theology. We just don’t appreciate violence aimed at shutting up someone who wants to tell a story, and we need to take a stand to defend those who are being persecuted for nothing more than writing a joke.
Look, I find several of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo offensive and immature, and would never post them on my blog. But the quality of their work is not the point. I value the freedom writers have in our culture to say what they want, to explore crazy ideas, and, yes, even to say something offensive. Humor and satire are ways of pointing out what’s wrong with the world or the government or the culture, and it’s the sign of a mature person to be able to laugh at himself or herself. Laughter can offend, but it can also offer perspective.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is very funny — sure, it slants decidedly to the left, and his mash-ups of Fox News clips and conservative speakers can be misleading and unfair… but so what? He’s funny, and points out the foibles of politicians and media spokespeople, and if anyone tried to firebomb his set I’d be on a plane to New York to join the crowds who would march in support of his show. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh’s program has a decided slant, and he’s sometimes funny, and I hate the thought of some left-wing nutjob attacking him simply for offering up one of his parodies.
You see, as writers we all understand that words matter. Your ability to tell a story, without government or religious interference, is an essential part of democracy, and part of what we hold dear as writers. You don’t have to get your priest’s approval to say something. You don’t have to wonder if your murder scene will offend the local government. You don’t have to make sure your thoughts on God are in line with the powers that be. The cowardly act of shooting the creators of Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of speech, and it’s exactly what America’s founding fathers intended to resist when they set up a government with no state religion. (If you don’t know your history, they were largely deists, worried about the religious and class wars happening overseas, and they made sure America would not be a theocracy. It’s why Americans need to resist sharia law, which wants the religious leaders to also be the political leaders. Do you want Pat Robertson as president? Do you want some local redneck pastor as your governor? Because that’s what they’ve got going in the Middle East these days — the Arabic equivalent of redneck pastors running cities and states.)
So I don’t care if you’re offended at Charlie Hebdo printing immature cartoons of Mary and Joseph having sex, or of the Prophet Muhammed kissing his gay lover. Offensive? Yes. Worthy of violence? No. And by the way, don’t believe the common notion that all Moslems reject depictions of their prophet. That’s just not true. It’s not in the Koran. In fact, there is plenty of art from the Middle East portraying Muhammed. What they have is a desire to not elevate any man into an idol, so they don’t want images of him in their mosques… and that has led the uneducated and the violent to make this into an issue worth killing for.
There are times I wish contemporary Christianity had something in print that was the equivalent of humor and satire, to poke fun at the Mark Driscolls and Wine Presses and the Ted Haggards. We don’t — we did have the late, lamented Wittenburg Door, but it seems like most evangelicals these days are WAY too angry to laugh at themselves. (Though if you’re interested, take a look at an assessment from Robert Darden, the longtime editor of The Door, in the Huffington Post.) Still, don’t buy into the whole argument that “Christians do the same thing” when it comes to this type of violence. In our contemporary world, that’s bull. We’ve all watched Father Guido Sarducci, read Mark Twain on the faith, and listened to Lenny Bruce riff on the church without rioting. We’ve seen numerous depictions of bad priests and evil pastors in Hollywood films, and listened to both stupid and heretical lessons via countless TV talking heads — all without resorting to violence. The notion of killing someone for making a joke, even a tasteless or racist or heretical joke, is considered evil by any thinking person.
So the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on all writers. It was an attack on everyone who wants to tell their own story and speak their own mind. It’s why I think we need to be outspoken in our belief that freedom of expression matters — even to those who we disagree with. I’d like to see Jon Stewart, and Rush Limbaugh, and Jerry Seinfeld, and Lewis Black, and Ellen Degeneres, and others who are both funny and acerbic, get together and say, “We insist on one another’s right to freedom of expression, because artistic freedom is a key ingredient in contemporary democratic societies.” I’d like to see the New York Times and Fox News stop acting afraid and reveal the cartoons that got people killed. (For all their chest-thumping, they’ve been totally frightened by the terrorists.) And I’d like to see writers, including people I know in the industry, publicly state that, while they may not appreciate the art of Charlie Hebdo, they stand with the creators.
Twelve people died defending your right to write what you want. Let’s remember them.