Paris terror attack: This isn't the time to critique Charlie Hebdo's cartoons

The truth is, a day before many of us changed our Facebook or Twitter display picture into a black box that said 'Je Suis Charlie', most of us outside Paris didn't know who they were. We Googled them immediately, but what surfaced were cartoons with French punchlines - much of which didn't make much sense to us. Given the limitations of Google Translate, we were slightly flummoxed at how some of those cartoons could be called very incendiary or incisive even. Was slain cartoonist Cabut's illustration showing Prophet Mohammed grimacing and saying 'it's hard to be liked by jerks' really such so inflammatory? But we still went ahead and changed that display picture to 'JeSuisCharlie' because all that mattered was cartoonists had been killed because of something they had drawn. We didn't stop to ponder over the politics of the cartoons as we were confronted with something much more terrifying - and that is death for drawing them. As television channels played the amateur video of two assailants running amok in a quiet street in Paris, the defeaning gun shots rippling through every corner of our offices or homes, we responded to the single takeaway from the incident - that of deep revulsion mixed with utter helplessness at a world gone amuck. We said 'JeSuisCharlie' for the same reasons we changed the display picture to a black box as the death toll mounted in the Peshawar school attacks.

And that was the absolute right thing to do.

 Paris terror attack: This isnt the time to critique Charlie Hebdos cartoons


After the shock of the incident washed over we learned more about who we just so deeply mourned. For some of us, the exercise was slightly disturbing and posed some unnerving questions, most of which included questioning if Charlie Hebdo's satire was justified in the first place. Some articles were written exhorting us to not forget that 'freedom of speech' shouldn't mean 'freedom from criticism'. Others defended the New York Times and other publications' decision to not publish the cartoons. The Twitter conversations too frequently questioned the 'appropriateness' of the cartoons in the first place. Following are some tweets to that effect:


As the initial outrage ebbed the discussion around the attack also sought to remind us that we should not put Charlie Hebdo on a pedestal of great satire because that was something that it doesn't deserve.

Does Hebdo, like any other piece of art or writing, deserve to be criticised? Absolutely. However, is this the right time and occasion to critique their satire? Absolutely not in my books.

What critical purpose does reminding the world that Hebdo's satire is not in great taste, serve at this particular moment? Nothing really. The day twelve people were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo office, including their editor-in-chief who was under police protection, Jacob Canfield wrote in The Hooded Utilitarian about their brand of satire. He writes "They ascribe to the same edgy-white-guy mentality that many American cartoonists do: nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship. And just like American cartoonists, they and their supporters are wrong. White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out."

Canfield might be right. But he will be relevant in another time.

The article, however one reads it, almost works as a warning against people who, in a surge of deep anger, will change their display pictures and cover pictures on social media to one of the cartoons branded 'offensive'. Mourn, but don't say their work was cool just yet. Imagine the kin, friends, fans, students of the dead reading a critique in this vein, just as they are struggling to come to terms of the shocking, untimely death of a loved one.  You wouldn't want to be one of them right now.

One might argue that the tradition of obituary writing, upheld by us, allows us to be critical to a person's works. But we have to make a much-necessary exception in cases of deaths like these - deaths which are meant to be punishment handed down by people who, like some of us, thought the cartoons were offensive. And instead of reacting with a tweet or an op-ed or a cartoon, they chose a gun. While the right to offend and the right to be offended measure up as equals in a democratic society, right now it's the former which has been struck - and grievously at that.

The most sophisticated well-argued critiques of the cartoons and the politics of Charlie Hebdo boils down to just one message now: 'No one should have to die like this. P.S Their cartoons sucked.'

We have every right to be outraged at their cartoons, but right now, the only thing we should outrage over is the the murder of the cartoonists. And their work was not the 'reason' they were killed, it was the excuse offered by murderers on a power trip. Being equally irreverent about other religions and other sacred cows did not save them.

The Guardian published an interesting editorial defending their, and other publications' decision to not republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. "The key point is this: support for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments. Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words," the editorial says. 

This editorial, at another time, makes an infallible argument. But right now, publishing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon doesn't really 'amplify' their 'judgment'. The only thing publishing their cartoon would amplify now is the idea that free speech must not cower before violence. In India, whose politics rests on religion as much as it does on caste and ethnicity, no cartoonist would perhaps even pitch a cartoon like the ones created by Charlie Hebdo to a mainstream publication. Given how that the Indian government in the past had taken to blocking blogspot, thereby trying to censor the expression of personal opinion on the internet, and one state government hauled up a university professor for forwarding a cartoon it did not like, it will be a while since we grow the kind of courage needed to make such a statement.

Also, bringing up French politics and the raising doubts over the alleged xenophobia that simmered under several Charlie Hebdo cartoons right now almost provides a context to this particular terror attack. Instead we should remember that terror, as it stands, is about people with the means to kill, killing people who neither can, nor intend to kill.

Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed because they drew cartoons which someone did not like. The fourteen-year-olds in Peshawar were killed because their fathers were in the Pakistani Army. As this article is being typed, 2,000 people lie dead in the streets of Baga, a Nigerian town taken over by the Boko Haram. Terror has taken the lives of many. And most of them had never drawn a cartoon.

Updated Date: Jan 11, 2015 19:12:40 IST