The Pen Is Not Mightier Than the Sword If It Is Silenced Forever. (On Charlie Hebdo.)
Unless you live under a rock, or the only news you read yesterday was about how many models Leonardo di Caprio left a recent party with (the answer to that is 20…he left with 20 models), you heard about the coldblooded massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris yesterday.
For those even further under a rock, or who have been living on the planet Mars for the past five or so years, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical newspaper that routinely prints comics that are, for lack of a better term, brazen. Other terms that have been used to describe the paper have been: offensive, over the top, outspoken. While not exclusively religious satire, a fair amount of its sentiments are focused on religion. Most recently, Islam.
Back in 2011, the old headquarters of Charlie Hebdo were attacked by fire-bomb and website hack, presumably in response to their prior special edition of the paper which named the Prophet Mohammed as “editor-in-chief” of the paper, with a cover depicting Mohammed. If you know only one thing about Islam, it’s this: caricaturing their Holy Prophet is considered passe. Actually, it’s not even passe (that would imply it was at one time OK to do) – it has never been accepted, and in fact is considered to be of the utmost insult to the core tenants of the religion.
Muslim leaders and lay people from around the world had two responses to the fire-bombing: (a) we do take offense to the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, (b) we don’t condone violence in any form.
No religion really has been spared, though – several years back the Pope was drawn on the cover holding a condom, which is when I (a cradle Catholic who never goes to church out of frustration with the Catholic church) even started to question just what is going on with this paper.
When you get down to it, the artists and editors at Charlie Hebdo are – yes – expressing their political and religious sentiments, and moreover describing for the world where their own self-professed atheism lies. Beyond that, they claim to be calling out and setting the stage of shame for the extremest of extremists within religious groups.
Now that we’ve caught up on our history, we can get down to the aftermath of this terrible, ideologically-charged, coldblooded murder yesterday. For the pen is not mightier than the sword if it is silenced forever.
In the immediate aftermath, candlelight vigils with people holding pens up in solidarity, as well as signs that said Je suis Charlie, were held in support of the 12 individuals tragically slain.
And this is when I started to balk at how people are handling this. On one hand, the murder was an act of terrorism, with no terrorist or religious group taking the credit. On the other hand, it is the terminal silencing of 12 individuals. 12 individuals who I would not say were “asking for it” – I would never say that; but it is undeniable that they were routinely fanning the flames with not only fans, but buckets of gasoline.
The statement Je suis Charlie – I am Charlie – implies that we all are those working at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. Fan the flames with buckets of gasoline. We all – artists, writers, cartoonists, editors – are just trying to get our message out there in the most effective way we know how. In a way that will appeal to people and make our point, and leave a lasting impression on the world.
I. Am. Charlie.
So will you be publishing this on your blog, or your magazine; your newspaper, or on the corner space you have of your community group newsletter, next week?
Will you spread your message like this?
When people criticize you, threaten you, entreat you, implore you, or even sit down with you calmly – your most trusted advisors and best of friends – and have a conversation about whether or not you are effectively getting your political and religious ideas out there, would you still print this?
Or when readership is dwindling and the funds are running dry, as was the case with Charlie Hebdo, would you just continue to print again and again these types of images, rather than doing a little bit of personal reflection and market evaluation, to see what will get you out there, rather than silenced?
And more importantly than that: do you really believe this is the best way to express your beliefs?
The Charlie Hebdos of the world are not what you will ever get here in in the United States. The Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker will never run anything quite like the satires of Charlie Hebdo, for many reasons above all which includes wanting to get the message out there without losing readership.
Does that make the artists and cartoonists and editors at those other papers – not even just American, but all around the world – censored and less real in their statements, because they don’t run caricatures of the Pope giving Mohammed a blow job?
With dwindling circulation and constant pleas for fundraising coming from actual Hebdo headquarters, combined with criticism from virtually every aspect of society – even staunch atheist groups – you have to wonder just how effective Charlie Hebdo’s message was. I’m not talking about whether or not it was right, everyone is entitled to an opinion. I’m talking about how it was said.
Some have even gone as far as to call out the paper for its flagrant hypocrisy, as if the term “freedom of speech” can be used conveniently, even when describing a situation that was previously considered unacceptable – even for an opinion.
Readership and funding and circulation and whether or not you would actually publish any of this stuff is not the point. Because you are not Charlie, just as I am not Charlie. And in reality, none of us can ever be Charlie Hebdo or the Wall Street Journal or Jim’s Neighborhood Circular if our pens are silenced, for whatever reason.
More baffling is that people seem to have lost the meaning of “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Suddenly cartoons, again in solidarity, are being published like the one above: of the pen stopping the gun. As if the pen can literally stop violence – stop the madness, stomp out the crimes, and outlive the violent actions that tried to take it down.
That’s not what it means at all.
To say that the pen is mightier than the sword is to say that written words and other passive, expressive art forms are more effective in stating a message than the use of direct violence or malicious attacks. It doesn’t stop violence. It’s just a better way of making your point (presumably because people are left to continue making it, rather than all dead and gone).
I won’t argue that the Charlie Hebdo drawings are on par with coldblooded murder. But I would say that they are more than merely expressive works of art. I might go as far as to say they are malicious, and I would certainly say they are not passive.
So where does that leave us?
Well, it leaves us with 12 people dead. Gone. Their pens broken and silenced, forever.
It leaves us reminded that we live in a terrible world in which killers don’t even care about what they are fighting against, or who they are killing; just how many they can take off before getting caught. Coldblooded, psychotic murdering done just for the sake of murdering.
It has left us confused. Bewildered. Unsure of anything.
We are left with soundbites and snapshots to remember the victims. (“I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees” – a religious sentiment from the slain editor in chief, that has now gone viral and will be applied to every out-of-context situation imaginable.)
There are statistics we have still. Like the Charlie Hebdo circulation: roughly 50,000. Versus the other leading French satire paper, Le Canard Enchaîné: 500,000.
Versus the publicity of this coldblooded murder: millions.
And we are left with the reminder that sometimes it isn’t about what you say, but how you say it.
The pen is not mightier than the sword if it is silenced forever. It is a travesty that those 12 pens, and the countless other pens in recent and ancient history, have been silenced. May they rest in peace, and may their deaths be not in vain but rather in a reminder that expression of your beliefs is effective only if it is heard.