Two masked gunmen stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7 and subsequently killed 12 employees, including four cartoonists, an economist, two police officers and the Editor-in-Chief of the publication. Eleven others at the scene were wounded during the attack, some gravely. As a nation rocked under the aftershock of the worst terrorist attack in France since 1961, journalists and civilians, alike, took to their respective mediums of expression to declare the death of free speech by radical extremism. The attacks were in direct retaliation to the magazine’s cartoons, which showed the prophet Muhammad in compromising situations and satirized Islamic ideologies.
First and foremost, it should be noted that cartoons, as depicted on the covers of Charlie Hebdo, fall under a large umbrella of art, and should thus be subjected to the same standards other forms of art are granted when it comes to freedom of speech. Artists are guaranteed freedom of expression, except in cases of child pornography, threatening motives or a handful of other exceptions to the rule.
As I write this column, I’m consistently struck by a moral dilemma. While I consider myself non-religious, in my heart I object to several of the Charlie Hebdo covers under scrutiny. The distortion of such an important figure in such a prominent religion is offensive, and the repeated targeting of one specific religion by the publication strikes me as troublesome and xenophobic. However, above all these objections, I hold freedom of speech in the utmost regard, regardless of context. The rights laid out in the first amendment are undoubtedly the foundation of democracy in any society, and we cannot begin to pick and choose when the freedom of speech is appropriate or not, especially in the world of political art. It’s important to learn about art like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” like I did in my AP U.S. Government class, not because it’s a particularly beautiful or influential piece on its own, but because it’s a test of our nation’s ability to question norms — religious, political, what have you — without fear of government persecution.
The United States, as well as France and other Western countries, are seeing an influx of immigrants from all different parts of the world, all with different ideas of the limits of free speech. As globalization increases, should satirical art change to accommodate the sensitivities of other cultures?
It comes without question that with increased globalization, cultural awareness is necessary. Every culture has its customs, quirks and taboos, and it’s our job as citizens of a global world to become aware to these quirks and develop sensitivity to certain topics considered rude or blasphemous, even if they may not appear so from our own cultural experiences. However, art is meant to break rules and challenge social norms, and thus shouldn’t be held to the same standards as everyday interactions. Art — real, textbook art — is supposed to incite something within us. We’re supposed to look at a piece and feel an emotion, and that feeling could be happiness, sadness or anger. While there was obviously anger incited by the Charlie Hebdo cover (which reached the point of a terrorist attack), these terrorists were radicals, and changing rules regarding freedom of speech in response will break down a complex system of Western freedoms that entice immigrants to come to America or France in the first place. We must defend the sanctity of art at all costs, because artistic expression is the basis of human culture. The ability to critique our surroundings, without fear of persecution or death, is the core of democratic freedom.