Any faint hope that a new year would shine a light in the growing darkness enveloping our planet was quickly shattered with the slaughter of a bunch of cartoonists working for an obscure publication in a language I never really got to grips with. The response from around the world was quick but not unequivocal. If the millions marching in Paris and elsewhere did so to affirm Fraternité and Égalité – and I like to think they did – that message was soon lost in the rush to claim the Liberté to offend.
Here in Brisbane, Australia at the outer edge of events, your Girl Reporter wept and wondered if standing with the hatemongers was really the best way to affirm a belief in freedom of expression.
Oh yes sir, I do disagree heartily with what you say, but must I stand between you and the bullets of the offended? Is the only choice in the face of terror to stand with those I despise? Looking at you, Larry Pickering, just a little local example of the sort of unpleasant characters jumping on board the Freedom Train.
Hypocrisy has been strutting its hour on the stage in the weeks since the killings and has been well documented with each appearance. The humble pencil and its descendants the camera and the keyboard have been kept busy on that front, with often devastating effect.
World leaders who linked arms in Paris and proudly declared “Je suis Charlie” surely didn’t expect their own questionable records as defenders of free speech to go unremarked and they didn’t.
UK blogger Daniel Wickham, tweeting as @DanielWickham93, had done his homework and called them out, one by one.
Among his more than 20 targets were Egypt, where Australia’s own Peter Greste and his Al-Jazeera colleagues still languish in jail; Saudi Arabia, fresh from the first flogging of a blogger for expressing liberal views; and the UK, where a newspaper office was raided, documents destroyed and journalists threatened with prosecution.
The power of the pen is not equivalent to the gun or the sword or the brutish fist of the state. If it was, so many of those who wield it would not be dead or imprisoned or waiting for the wounds of the lash to heal sufficiently so they can be reopened once again.
Its power lies in what it can inspire, in the ideas it can spread and the hearts it can move with just a few deft strokes. This machine kills fascists but only if you want it to. It can also inspire them. It is, after all, just a machine.
And that’s where we, the people, come in. We make the choice, and every time we click and share and comment we exercise the power of the machine – for good, evil or banality, take your pick.
No really, take your pick. Choices matter. The hour is getting late and the voices of hatred and division are loud, whether they come from crazed radicals backed with guns, or urbane intellectuals backed with friends in high places using poor dead Charlie to justify their freedom of speech while seeking to deny ours.
These are difficult and complex times and I am struggling to make sense of them. I’m distrustful of governments which argue that the best way to protect our freedoms is to surrender them to the state. I’m disgusted by attacks on Muslims which surely have been encouraged at least in part by some of the commentary following each act of terror.
And I’m alarmed that, in an age in which all the information we need is freely available in the palms of our sweaty hands, we seem so ready to deal in absolutes and embrace ignorance.
Fascism is a big and ugly word and thankfully it doesn’t apply much here in Australia yet, but while we’ve been chortling and invoking Godwin’s Law every time some silly commenter inappropriately mentions Hitler, real fascism is on the move in the world and perhaps it would have been called out sooner if good people hadn’t feared the risk of ridicule.
Because nobody likes to be ridiculed, most especially those who seek to control us, whether by the gun or the law. That, of course, is why the satirist is so dangerous and so important.
I do believe a good idea can stand the test of ridicule and also that little acts of kindness do matter. I have a small example that shone a little light of hope for your gloomy Girl Reporter, who didn’t want to start the New Year on such a serious note.
When Fox News in the US wrongly declared that the entire city of Birmingham in the UK had become a ‘no-go zone’ for non-Muslims, a small act of kindness that began here in Australia following the terrible Martin Place siege popped up in an unexpected way:
Of course you don’t have to travel too far down the #illridewithyou stream on Twitter to find bile, hatred and ridicule of silly naïve lefties, into which group I must include myself, and ordinary peace-loving Muslims who are bearing the brunt of these hard times. I choose to share the one that made me smile and gave me hope.
So yes sir, I’ll stand with you and your right to offend but I insist on the freedom to judge you on who you’re offending and why.
And I’ll also watch closely your response to ridicule. In the increasingly bitter contest for our hearts and minds, a little ridicule goes a long way.
This machine still kills fascists. It also bullies the vulnerable and incites hatred.
Woody Guthrie themed pencils via Corey Doctorow at Boing Boing
Ralph Steadman on Charlie Hebdo, the right to offend and changing the world – Robert Chalmers, Newsweek
Former ‘Onion’ editor: Free speech cannot be killed – Joe Randazzo, MSNBC
Yes, words hurt, but that doesn’t excuse a punchy pope – Nick Cohen, The Observer
Freedom of speech can only be absolute – Salman Rushdie, The Guardian
Giving bigots more rights is the wrong response to Charlie Hebdo massacre – Lydia Shelly, New Matilda
After the Paris attacks we’re in danger of abandoning the right to offend – Natalie Nougayrède, The Guardian
Rise of the right after France attacks – Karine G Barzegar, Al-Jazeera
How to deal with people who want Muslims to apologise for Charlie Hebdo – Matthew Champion, The Independent
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© Sally Baxter 2015