to award or not to award

The New York Times this week reported that, “French illustrators have been denounced on social networks in recent days for publishing editorial cartoons inspired by photographs of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose drowning in the waters off Greece this month prompted an outpouring of sympathy for refugees.”

Much of the critique has been of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the subject of Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World because, once again, people are reacting without context or knowledge of the French language, or both.

Indeed, Charlie Hebdo editor Riss was not poking fun at Syrian refugees. The translation of the cartoon reads “Proof that Europe Is Christian: Christians walk on water while Muslim children drown.” This is satire intended to heighten awareness of the tragic plight of millions of people escaping war in Syria.

In this context, please read on for: To Award or not to Award: Satire at Heart of Free Speech Debate published in Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World by Sally O’Dowd.

Cartoonists discuss Charlie Hebdo's satire at forum hosted by Pen America
Cartoonists discuss Charlie Hebdo’s satire at forum hosted by Pen America

In November 2013, Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-Chief Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb) published a cartoon de- picting Christiane Taubira, France’s Justice Minister, who is black, as an ape. His intention was to raise aware- ness of the racism prevalent in the Front National (National Front), the extreme right-wing political party led by Marine Le Pen. Charb titled it “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste” (Racist Blue Union) as a play on the Front National’s slogan, “Rassemblement Bleu Marine” (Blue Marine Union).

After the cartoon appeared, some people accused Charlie Hebdo of racism. Despite the magazine’s consistent use of satire to ques- tion authority and institutions of all kinds, some critics take its work literally, labeling it not only racist but also Islamaphobic, homopho- bic and otherwise intolerant of people’s differences.

French cartoonist and development economist Emmanuel Letouzé, who goes by the pen name Manu, says such accusations couldn’t be further from the truth. He unconditionally backs Charlie Hebdo’s use of satire to support a humanitarian point of view. “I would not support them if they were racists,” he said in an interview earlier this summer at his office on Madison Avenue in New York.

Indeed, Charb was a member of the non-profit organization The Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples. Two days before his January 7 murder at the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists, he completed a book titled Letter to the Islamophobia Swindlers Who Play Into the Hands of Racists. It was published in April.

“Political commentary gets to the heart of what the people at Charlie Hebdo were doing,” said Letouzé, who is also the director of the Data-Pop Alliance, the first think tank on big data and development, co-created by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab and Overseas Development Institute. “They were super-passionate, super-hardcore, and many of their car- toons weren’t primarily meant to be funny. They were intense. What you can do in cartoons is often inappropriate in words.”

Those who are not regular readers of Charlie Hebdo likely don’t un- derstand its work, added Letouzé, sketching in his notebook throughout the interview. “We live in an age of data and social media, and con- tent goes wild with little context.”

Shock. Don’t Shoot.

In May, Letouzé was one of sever- al cartoonists who spoke at a New York forum hosted by human rights organization PEN American Center, which awarded Charlie Hebdo a “freedom of expression courage” award at its literary gala. During the panel discussion, the group dis- cussed Charb’s ape cartoon as one example of the magazine’s use of satire to wake people up to injustice, racism and other social ills.

“Being shocked is part of demo- cratic debate,” said Charlie Hebdo’s new top editor, Gérard Biard, upon receiving the award. “Being shot is not.”

Letouzé expressed dismay that more than 200 PEN members opposed an award given in honor of colleagues who died while exercising their right to free speech. Wouldn’t journalists and writers, of all people, try to un- derstand the magazine’s work be- fore criticizing it?

Despite their PEN membership, the dissenting group signed a letter of protest, arguing that the award crossed a line between “staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.”

For his part, Salman Rushdie took the debate outside the private gala. On Facebook he exchanged harsh words with Francine Prose, one of the award protestors. “Our fel- low artists were murdered for their ideas, and you won’t stand up for them,” Rushdie said. “I hope that our long alliance can survive this. But I fear some old friendships will break on this wheel.”

Katy Glenn Bass, PEN America’s deputy director of Free Expression Programs, reiterated the organiza- tion’s defense of its award in a July phone interview. When asked about context, she said it doesn’t matter: “We defend your right to publish anything you want, whether people understand it or not.”

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