By Hannah Brandt
“The belief that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong in the world.”
—Dr. Paul Farmer
Every year, at least one global incident sets off an immediate, baffling, visceral gut reaction by a majority of the public. In 2014, there were several, each with its own social media hashtag: the U.S. response to #Ebola, whereby much of the American public was consumed by their own negligible chances of getting the deadly disease rather than concern for the thousands actually dying from it in West Africa; #GamerGate, where violent threats attacking women who spoke out against sexism in the gaming industry were laughed at by most male gamers and blamed on the women themselves; and #ICantBreathe, the last words asthmatic African-American Eric Garner uttered before being killed by an NYPD police officer using a “takedown maneuver” that in mere seconds fatally cut off all oxygen to his vulnerable lungs.
It seems there is an empathy caveat for too many of us. Only people we perceive as being like us deserve it. Most in law enforcement circles defended the NYPD officer’s actions, while many civilians were horrified watching an unarmed man strangled to death before our eyes. The utter contempt among many in law enforcement toward activists online and in the streets for chanting #BlackLivesMatter was chilling. To be critical of abuse of power in the gaming industry and police force was viewed as disrespectful to these predominantly White male institutions. Those with the most to fear were the most likely to be threatened; those with the greatest social power were most likely to do the threatening.
My yearly discouragement has been kicked off in 2015 by the reaction to the murders of several Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by violent extremists. I share the world’s sadness, as the killing of any human being is horrific and unjustified. While I find the satirical magazine’s work disgusting, that in no way means I condone the death of those responsible for it. My dismay comes from the #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) response that immediately flooded social media and the airwaves. Instead of simply expressing grief at loss of life, many literally identified with the cartoonists and defended their right to publish overtly racist cartoons under the banner of freedom of speech.
Everyone from satirists to journalists to the general citizenry pulled out that free speech banner using a quote attributed to Voltaire, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Well, I will not fight to the death for the right to publish racist cartoons. Nor am I, like some, worried that if they could not publish them, freedom of speech would be under attack. The ironic disconnect between this outcry of support and simultaneous denouncement of historical racist cartoons would be funny if it was not so disturbing.
Before anyone claims I do not understand French satire, I was born in and have lived in France. I have lived there during an election, where I saw on full display the harsh lampooning of politicians. I even have caricatures of the presidential candidates from that year. By no means is all French satire like Charlie Hebdo and, if it was, that would not excuse it.
Historical cartoons of African Americans depicted as monkeys, for example, are universally condemned, but Charlie Hebdo illustrated a French minister of African descent exactly thus. The magazine claimed it meant to criticize Marine Le Pen, a French politician from the anti-immigration, far right party, Le Front National. If true, by rudimentary understanding of satire, the individual depicted as a monkey should have been Le Pen. Perhaps it is Charlie Hebdo that does not understand satire.
It does not matter that in addition to scores of insulting images of the prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo also publishes offensive cartoons of the Catholic pope. Racist cartoonists in the 1800s did not relegate all their satirical energy to Black and Brown people. They lampooned Whites, but in a very different manner that in no way undercut the racism of their work. Charlie Hebdo created more disgusting images of Black and Brown people than of Whites, more offensive images of Muslims than of Jewish people. A cartoonist was fired from Charlie Hebdo after making an anti-Semitic cartoon in 2009. The idea that Charlie Hebdo is a shining example of free speech is laughable. It is free speech for the powerful, whether or not they acknowledge that privilege.
This is not about disliking or disagreeing with a point of view; it is an issue of despicable racism carried out under the guise of free speech. It is an abuse of power by elite, White men of Christian heritage picking on the most marginalized in society. There is nothing subversive or anti-establishment about that, but like all intolerant forces around the world, they claim they are and depict themselves as the victims of curtailed freedoms when their work is denounced. Do we see valor in adults who steal candy from children? Or bullies who kick people after they have fallen? No, because that takes advantage of one’s superior status and rubs the weakness of others in their faces. Even if Charlie Hebdo was mocking all peoples in equal amount, the powerful do not suffer from jabs against them as the weak do. The public does not internalize them in the same way. Racist and sexist images in comedy reinforce very real prejudices in society.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. This overwhelming display of sympathy for a handful of European deaths stands against the backdrop of hundreds of Palestinian children killed this summer in Gaza with Western military support. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Syrians killed in the last four years with very little Western humanitarian intervention, and hundreds of thousands of Muslim Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed in the War on Terror in the last 10 years, none of which inspired the kind of outpouring of grief and anger in the West that the Charlie Hebdo murders did. Where are the thousands marching in the streets of Paris in outrage over babies freezing to death in bombed-out homes in Gaza? Or the 2000 Nigerians killed by Boko Haram last week? Israeli forces in Gaza killed 17 Palestinian journalists this summer. Not a peep was made in the mainstream media. The imbalance is sickening.
The rounding up of “suspicious persons” in France and other parts of Europe after this attack is also concerning. Not surprisingly, they are overwhelmingly Muslim, who are overwhelmingly immigrants from the Middle East or North Africa. The rise in anti- Muslim sentiment in Europe has been building with the rise of anti-immigrant, right-wing parties from UKIP in Britain to Le Front National in France to PEGIDA in Germany. It is dangerous when those with social power support everything people with official power do in the name of safety and security. Safety and security for whom? The disenfranchised always come away with even fewer rights than they had before. I stand with those who marched in Paris today, demanding #RespectforMuslims.
Hannah Brandt is a freelance journalist who has previously published in the Community Alliance and the Fresno Bee. She posts her work at https://medium.com/@hannahbp2. Contact her on Twitter @HannahBP2 where she runs @FresnoAlliance.