I’m a creative writer. I like writing fiction. I also occasionally take part in the sort of journalistic writing that I admittedly don’t understand. But I’m very much a creative writer of fiction. Doing so in a democratic country means I take full advantage of my First Amendment rights. Loving what I do also means that I plan to continue taking full advantage of my right to express myself.

Yet these facts shouldn’t be the end of a conversation, especially one as complex as the Charlie Hebdo case. I write. I express myself. I don’t deserve death or injury or threats under any circumstances. Anyone who has been a victim of such violence because they chose to express themselves should receive our greatest condolences and support.

But again, our conversation shouldn’t end here, with a generalized statement about a code of conduct that most of us already follow. We need to understand context. We need to take into account nuances. We especially need to talk about something that I almost never hear when we talk about creativity and expression — power.

Power in the sense of artistic freedom means I not only have the ability to express myself, but I also (and especially) have the means to do so to an audience who will listen. The first facet of the “power to express” I think most people have down: we all have opinions and ideas, and we’re generally able to communicate them using our respective languages — written, spoken, performed or drawn. It’s when we get to the other two facets that everything gets messy and suddenly race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, ability, citizenship, etc. come into play. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, we need to think about how many Muslim citizens and immigrants don’t have the same access to public self-expression as do non-Muslims.

In 2010, a Stanford study found that a Christian citizen of France is more than twice as likely to get a call-back for a job interview as an equally qualified Muslim citizen. About 60 percent of the prison population in France is comprised of those with Muslim ties. In July, the European Court upheld France’s ban on wearing the Muslim niqab in public. The single tragedy of Charlie Hebdo, no matter how devastating, cannot be viewed in a vacuum, especially not when discrimination against Muslims is a real and current issue. We’re talking about an influential magazine using its power to comment on a religion that is practiced by a group of people whose voices have never been fully heard. The issue is no longer about the right to express. The issue is about the “power to express,” namely having a means to say something as well as an audience who will listen, which I mentioned earlier. Muslim women not being allowed to wear the niqab demonstrates that a means of expression has been revoked. Discrimination in the workforce and higher rates of incarceration mean the French culture as a whole is unwilling to be a listening audience.

In creative writing, there’s been a running debate on whether or not our works carry any sort of social burden. It’s a difficult discussion, and I see both sides of the argument. If artists are limited in what they can say or do, then that means art cannot evolve. After all, many of our greatest literary classics today were once very controversial. At the same time, I think all artists need to be more mindful of how their pieces influence others and shape others’ beliefs, especially if the subject matter touches on those who lack the sort of power and influence to assert their own dignity. How does Charlie Hebdo’s portrayal of Islam affect the already negative opinions of Muslim citizens and immigrants in France? Do Muslims have access to artistic mediums where their voices can be heard just as loudly with just as much respect? As a brief side note, I’ve always found it interesting that many writers I know want to make a difference through their writing. But when we realize that our pieces might have any smidgen of negative social consequence on marginalized people, we hide and say we’re only “expressing ourselves.”

When Charlie Hebdo published their magazine covers portraying the Prophet Muhammad, they sent a message to the world beyond merely their views on Islam. They told the world just how much power they, as non-Muslim artists, held. They were saying, “Look at me. Look at the kind of power I hold over you. I can depict a religious leader whom I don’t follow in any way however I want. Look at me.”

Jenny Wang can be reached at wjenny@umich.edu.

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