Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech Gone Too Far?

by Tanya Thekkekkara



Freedom Of Speech (Noun): The right of people to express their opinions publicly without governmental interference, subject to the laws against libel,incitement to violence or rebellion, etc.


I, like many other people, enjoy satire. The slight element of dark humour, mixed with the portrayal of moral realities in today's society, all emulated in one witty political cartoon does, I have to say, make me tick. The mere fact that satire exists is one of the telling indicators that we live in a free society - which I greatly applaud. However, the line between freedom of speech and just pure racism is often blurred.


This can be illustrated in the notorious French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. With its recent controversial stance on the refugee and migration crisis, it has published a series of cartoons on this issue - one of which is a cartoon depicting  the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, as a potential sexual harasser. Many believe the magazine has gone “too far” with humour this time and that the cartoon is racist. It shows Kurdi – the child whose picture showing him lying face down on a beach highlighted the extent of the refugee crisis – with a message: “What would have happened to little Aylan if he grew up?” The answer, “A groper of women in Germany.”

The cartoon is referencing the New Year's Eve Cologne attacks this year (see Ellie Williams-Brown's article on the attacks here) in which 838 people have filed criminal complaints, including 497 women alleging sexual assault, with 3 rape cases, against a male group of asylum seekers. Bearing in mind Germany’s liberal intake of 1 million refugees, this cartoon seems to be taking one step back, reinforcing the old notion that people of colour are simply rapists and sexual harassers. 


Furthermore, what caused the pinnacle of outrage was the magazine’s usage of the dead 3 year old Aylan, whose tragic death not only caught the attention of the whole world but also made the government respond to deal  with the refugee crisis. The danger of this cartoon is that it will further stimulate people to use this threat as an excuse to not take in refugees due to the overhanging fear of the refugees being “potential rapists”. 

Firstly, may I state that all humans have the potential to become evil, not just refugees, and thus the argument is already flawed. Secondly, though this may sound idealistic, in times of a crisis the striving attitude should be of generosity and hope towards the human race not anger and hatred. I can understand the traumatic experience the Charlie Hebdo  magazine staff went through last year as a result of the attack following the publication of the controversial cartoon of Prophet Mohammed. However, cartoons such as these can have a detrimental effect towards society’s treatment of refugees and what happened in Paris early last year shouldn’t be used as an excuse. As mentioned earlier, I appreciate satire when it is smart and witty. But the commodification of the tragic death of a child? Poor and tasteless. Surely, this is where the line should be drawn?


On the contrary, implementation of these “ lines” runs the risky factor of censorship of media. This in turn runs the ultimate risk factor - the potential for a dictatorship-style of government or a right wing fundamentalist government. It seems as if we can only have one of the extremes. To be censored or to not be censored? That is the question. 


All in all, I can only provide you with an inconclusive answer: freedom of speech should be permitted, though it may cause offence. The only way to override the negative features of satire is to entrust the human race to have enough morality to choose when to ignore it and see it as simply that - satire.



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