Looking Back on Charlie Hebdo

Todd Lanier Lester, São Paulo
February 10, 2015

Arts Policy Nexus

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

The day following the Charlie Hebdo attack, I was in line at a public notary office in São Paulo. The local news televised footage of the massacre, relayed on a flat screen meant to placate those of us waiting for an official stamp on this or that official document. My thoughts were drawn to the emerging corollaries between this attack and the controversy surrounding Denmark’s 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, which Charlie Hebdo thereafter published. There is now a body of scholarship surrounding the Danish cartoon crisis that is relevant to the Paris attack, including Peter Hervik’s 2012 study, “The Danish Muhammad Cartoon Conflict”. In it, Hervik argues:

The structure and logic of the news genre rely on a model that insists on seeing two sides of a conflict, which on one hand dovetails nicely with the narrative of clash of civilization (Peterson 2007), and on the other relies on a domestication of news which resonates with the readers’ view of themselves and the Muslim world. In a study of the Boston Globe’s coverage of the cartoon conflict Mark Allen Peterson concluded that readers are invited to see the events following the publication of the cartoons as a single global event in which rational Western actors engaged in a rational, democratic practice are met with a hostile global response by undifferentiated “Muslims” whose protests are not seen as forms of democratic expression but as irrational actions (Peterson 2007).

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Ten years ago, I founded freeDimensional, an organization that helps endangered artists. Given this role, my colleagues and I are expected to react to the Hebdo attack. The reason why is that four of the 12 people killed in the attack were cartoon journalists. As with many artists and creative professionals, cartoonists often wear many hats and do the range of work that provides their livelihoods.

Whereas some cartoonists are strictly journalists, many are not, seeing themselves more broadly as visual artists. As such, cartoon journalists often “fall between the cracks,” and journalism watchdogs (such as Committee to Protect Journalists) may react differently to a media outlet, which includes cartoonists, being attacked than to an independent cartoonist being targeted.

In the space of free speech and related safety mechanisms, practices closer to the triad of academia, journalism, and literature have more overlaps and a stronger history of support than do other areas. Organizations like theCommittee to Protect Journalists, as well as Reporters without Borders, Rory Peck Trust, PEN, Scholar Rescue Fund, and Scholars at Risk offer writers a safety net visual artists often lack. For example, in countries with low literacy rates, cartoonists are more widely “read” and susceptible to disagreement, yet the support they receive–similar to that of visual artists–is negligible in comparison to that of writers.

Several factors are at play here. First, cartoonists are often freelancers who infrequently work full time for media outlets. Accordingly, cartoonists experience similar treatment to ‘stringers’ in journalism. Media conglomerates and journalistic institutions generally support the aforementioned watchdog organizations, thereby reinforcing the systemic subjugation of freelancers to a lesser degree of support. Despite these factors, organizations like Cartoonists Rights Network International, International Cities of Refuge Network, La Maison des Journalistes, freeDimensional, and the Cartoon Movement are among the few supporting independent cartoonists.

In contributing to such work, freeDimensional follows an unwritten modus operandi: We do not advocate the social and political issues surrounding an artist’s peril while we are working for the artist’s safety. There is a correlation between this principal and the reasons virally distributing Hebdo cartoons in the wake of the Paris attack is problematic, even inappropriate for an organization that often aids cartoonists in dangerous situations.

While the “Je suis Charlie” meme originated with those running the Charlie Hebdo website after the attack, organizations like PEN International picked it up and it was tweeted over a million times, making it hard to distinguish the phrase from many organizations sharing sadness, outrage, and solidarity. After reading Facebook posts from friends in places like Pakistan and Egypt and speaking with colleagues, I began to understand their aversion to having empathy for free speech be co-opted by “Je suis Charlie.”

Soon, the internet filled with alternative “#JeSuis __” hashtags, including “JeSuisAhmed,” honoring the Muslim policeman, Ahmed Merabet, who was killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo office, and “JeSuisKhaledIdris” for the Eritrean refugee killed the following week in Dresden, Germany. These social media counter narratives insist that not everyone “is Charlie,” even if they are greatly saddened by the Paris murders.

Index on Censorship specifically asked that news outlets and free expression organizations broadcast a Charlie Hebdo piece the day following the attack, “to show support for the journalists and also to make a strong statement to stand up for free speech.” When Index asked freeDimensional’s compliance, I read their appeal too quickly and failed to fully process the request. Later that day, I saw a cartoon on the Index homepage featuring two men, a Hebdo staffer and a Muslim, kissing with the French words “love is stronger than hate” against a backdrop of the French satirical magazine’s smoldering office.

I realized then that I could not possibly agree to redistribute the cartoons. As a gay man working in social justice, I closely followed the Dutch government’s distribution of a video in the Islamic world showing men kissing. I agree with Judith Butler’s critique of the situation, which argues that governments can just as easily deploy one minority against another, leading to further instability yet no real clarity of any expressed beliefs. Where sometimes free expression of those beliefs can overlap with social justice, in other instances they are diametrically opposed.

Given the series of violent eruptions in which the Charlie Hebdo attack is situated globally, it seems impossible for this situation to normalize until we have serious conversations about the role of dominant culture in maintaining a colonial status quo and its complicity in terrorism sired by global inequity. What I want to convey and would have freeDimensional communicate (though it was not entirely my decision) is that we are outraged and distraught by the Paris attacks. That being said, we are thinking deeply on what to do in the short and long terms to make the world more equitable for the artists who reflect society back to us in magnificent, haunting, courageous, and provocative ways.

I did not choose to simply remove freeDimensional’s name from the viral campaign (if that is even possible in the web 2.0 era). I am suggesting, however, that we dig deeper into the moral confusion and attempt a conversation removed of political rhetoric. We must do so in our most humble voices and across a range of human experiences, lest the Charlie Hebdo murders and their aftermath (in Europe and elsewhere) spark further violence.

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Todd Lanier Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He is the founder of freeDimensional and more recently Lanchonete.org, a project focused on daily life in the Center of São Paulo, where he currently lives.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]
Todd Lanier Lester

Todd Lanier Lester

Todd Lanier Lester is an artist, writer, and cultural producer.  He lives and works in São Paulo, where he is developing Lanchonete.org, a project focused on daily life in the city center, with a group of fellow artists and city dwellers. 

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