Cartoons can and do offend

Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel explain why PEN is giving Charlie Hebdo an award.

Although censorship has traditionally been the province primarily of governments, attempts to curb speech are likewise undertaken by vigilantes who employ threats and violence. In the last few months we have seen shootings at Charlie Hebdo and at a free-speech event in Copenhagen; the hacking to death of two Bangladeshi atheist bloggers, one of them an American; a death threat against an Australian political cartoonist by jihadists; and the gunning down of a Pakistani social activist.

I missed the death threat against an Australian political cartoonist, but all the other items I’ve been ranting about relentlessly.

These audacious attacks aim to terrorize a worldwide audience into silence on subjects that, though sacred to some, affect many others and must not be above debate. While this is hardly the only free-speech issue on PEN’s long agenda of American and global concerns, the spate of homicides gives it particular urgency.

Six writers of tremendous distinction — Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and Taiye Selasi — have sent notes to us indicating that they were not comfortable attending our gala on Tuesday, in light of the award. Many other writers of distinction — including Paul Auster, Adam Gopnik, Siri Hustvedt, Porochista Khakpour, Alain Mabanckou, Azar Nafisi, Salman Rushdie, Simon Schama and Art Spiegelman — have made statements (some in public and some in private) in support of the award. Our goal has been to avoid a reductive binary; this is a nuanced question, and all of these writers have made persuasive moral arguments.

Not really. All of them have tried to, no doubt, but not all of them succeeded. They’re not all above average.

In offering this award, PEN does not endorse the content or quality of the cartoons, except to say that we do not believe they constitute hate speech. The question for us is not whether the cartoons deserve an award for literary merit, but whether they disqualify Charlie Hebdo from a hard-earned award for courage. (The gala on Tuesday will also honor Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist in jail for exposing rampant corruption.)

That’s a good way of putting it; I wish I’d thought of it. As I keep saying, it would be possible for cartoons and satirical papers to be racist and thus bad candidates for an award, it’s just that Charlie isn’t one of them.

That the cartoons were not intentionally racist does not preclude their being experienced as racist. Cartoons can and do offend. Yet Christiane Taubira, the black French justice minister who was parodied as a monkey in a cringe-worthy cartoon, delivered a poignant elegy at the funeral of one of her supposed tormentors, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, saying that “Tignous and his companions were sentinels, lookouts, those who watched over democracy,” preventing it from being lulled into complacency.

The leading French anti-racism organization, SOS Racisme, has called Charlie Hebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in this country.” Its current editor, Gérard Biard, says it deplores all forms of racism. According to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015, only seven singled out Islam for ridicule (ten were cited as mocking multiple religions); many more mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons resist religious extremists’ attempts to redraw the boundaries of free speech by using violence. They do so in defense of norms to which free societies subscribe. Anti-Muslim prejudice in the West is a serious matter. So is fundamentalism, Islamist or otherwise. Feeding off one another, both ills threaten civil liberties and tear at social fabrics. But a statement or an award that addresses one problem does not thereby deny or acquiesce to the other. The distressing absence of broad respect toward Muslims in France does not undercut Charlie Hebdo’s bravery in defending the right to be disrespectful.

I hope the rafters ring with cheers next Tuesday evening when Alain Mabanckou presents the award and Gérard Biard accepts it.

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