Should We Be Charlie?

January 21, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The media storm over Charlie Hebdo has tapered off, but if you check the news, you'll see that both peaceful and violent protests continue. After two heavily armed men attacked the satirical magazine, killing 12 people, there was a massive show of support of freedom of speech worldwide. Millions attended a march in Paris, and many more proclaimed “Ju suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) in solidarity with the murdered cartoonists. Although I completely support the right to free speech, I don't believe that Charlie Hebdo should have drawn and published the cartoons they did. It was not a compassionate thing to do.

I can anticipate some of the objections. “Are you telling me that I should have compassion for extremists? For terrorists?” Yes, I am. And I think that the reason for the objection is that people don't understand what compassion is, at least not as I use the term. Dictionary definitions don't suffice; they tend to focus on the word's origins as “pity” or “suffering together with” someone. To me, compassion goes well beyond feeling sorry for someone's misfortune, and even beyond feeling someone's pain along with them It's really something quite different. Compassion is a special kind of openness, one that brings a deep understanding of another's perspective and experience. Yes, it involves feeling what another feels, but also seeing how they see and knowing how they know. It requires getting in touch with your own feelings, which enables you to feel with another in an intimate way. It is a release of the sense of self and identity that erects barriers between yourself and others, making it possible to recognize and understand the experience of another person. It does not define your behavior, but helps to inform it. It is not simply being kind or gentle. It is not being a pushover or “giving in” to the demands of others. It opens you to knowing deeply how your words and actions affect others.

How does this relate to the men who attacked the magazine? Everyone who works at Charlie Hebdo knew/knows that there are many people who consider it offensive to create an image of the Muslim prophet Mohammed at all. Charlie Hebdo repeatedly published cartoons depicting Mohammed. I don't want to get bogged down in analyzing what the cartoons showed or what they were about, but the content is also an important part of the discussion. The cartoons were often disgusting, not only depicting Mohammed, but showing him uttering profanity, engaging in sexual intercourse, and behaving immorally. Compassion allows us to understand how offensive this is to many Muslims, and how angry it would make them. It lets us know exactly how “they” feel because we have all felt deeply offended and extremely angry at times. From the openness of compassion, I know that engendering more of that kind of anger and hatred makes the world worse for us all. It further divides us and makes us look upon each other with suspicion and contempt. And as we all know, it drives people further apart and too often leads to violence.

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo are not “justified”--it's not okay to kill just because one is feeling enraged. But I completely understand how rage drives people to kill. So I would also say that the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published are also not “justified.” Just because one has the right (legal, moral, or otherwise) to do something, doesn't mean that one should do it. It's a mistake to frame the issue as silencing one's freedom of speech out of fear of being attacked, or even of allowing threats of violence to determine one's behavior. It's a matter of opening to compassion, and by doing so, understanding the part that each of us plays in creating the future of our world. The ability to challenge mistaken beliefs and oppressive uses of power through speech is important. But these cartoons did no such thing. They were meant to offend, and had little constructive to say. And even if a cartoon or other piece of speech has a valuable message, it needs to be presented in a way that people can hear. This is where compassion can be so helpful.

After the attack and march, Charlie Hebdo published the next issue of their magazine. On the cover was another cartoon not only depicting Mohammed, but purporting to speak for him, proclaiming that he stands in solidarity with the murdered cartoonists and magazine publishers. And the cycle of anger and violence has continued. We should not be Charlie. We should be more compassionate and understanding. Of everyone.


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