I’m Charlie Hebdo, though I dislike some of the things he says
One story is worth highlighting in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris.
When the French government threatened to block Muslim protests at the satirical newspaper’s office in 2012, its editor, Stephanie Charbonnier, protested.
“Why should they prohibit these people from expressing themselves?” Charbonnier, one of the 12 murdered journalists, said, according to a New York Times report. “We have the right to express ourselves, they have the right to express themselves, too.”
I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo before last week’s massacre. But after seeing the cartoons that allegedly sparked the murderous attack, I agree with the paper’s critics: Some of their cartoons on Muslims and Arabs are offensive, even obnoxious.
But then again, so were their other cartoons and editorials on other groups, including Christians. One of their latest edition reportedly featured on a debate on whether Jesus Christ existed.
It was Voltaire who articulated what we now consider a basic tenet of democracy: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Charbonnier, known by his pseudonym “Charb,” clearly believed in this. In fact, given the defiance by which Charlie Hebdo responded to threats, he and other staff members were willing to die for this principle.
Which is why the passionate praise they have posthumously received makes sense — even though some of that praise is laced with the kind of indirect or brazen racism that Charlie Hebdo cartoons were known for.
Cartoonists all over the world were right to lionize these journalists and artists, to view them as martyrs of press freedom.
Some of the drawings, featuring the pen and other instruments of journalism and editorial cartooning, are truly moving. But the other cartoons, especially those that featured sinister looking hooked-nose Arabs and Muslims, are simply racist.
But here’s an important point the Paris tragedy underscored: Just as people have the right to denounce — and should denounce — such nasty images and all forms of prejudice, in a democracy, those who drew and publish such images should have the right do so.
Violence is absolutely unacceptable as a response or reaction.
Unfortunately, it has taken a tragedy like the Charlie Hebdo massacre to remind us of this.
And this is why I join those who say “I am Charlie Hebdo”: I condemn the violence against the paper and its staff and affirm the paper’s right to express ideas, including those I find offensive and obnoxious.
It’s an important reminder and lesson for Filipinos, including those of us here in the United States.
We continue to wrestle with racist images and stereotypes, and many in the Fil-Am community have responded strongly to these portrayals.
In 1994, community activists led the charge in denouncing an episode in the TV sitcom “Frasier” in which a character cracking a joke about the cost of plastic surgery added, ”For an extra five grand, you can get a whole new wife from the Philippines.”
But these responses never featured calls to violence. Instead, they sent a clear, powerful message: “You represent us in a derogatory fashion and you will hear from us. The days when you could do so without us speaking out are over.”
In fact, as a reminder of that painful past, many in the Fil-Am community even dig up and tout images from that past when humiliating Filipinos or other Asian groups was viewed as okay.
There’s that famous poster featuring the infamous photo of a Stockton hotel sign saying, “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.”
A decade ago, a group of writers and activists — Abe Ignacio, Helen Toribio, Jorge Emmanuel and Enrique Delacruz — collected and published the racist images of Filipinos during the American colonial occupation of the Philippines in the award-winning volume, The Forbidden Book, which featured crude portrayals of Filipinos as lazy, violent savages.
The Charlie Hebdo tragedy also reminds us of the power of (and dangers in) satire and humor.
The “alaskahan” has long been part of the Filipino way of engaging other people, including those we disagree with. That’s evident today in social media. But even our ancestors, including the poets, writers and political reformers of the Spanish and American colonial eras, turned to satire and ridicule, using them as weapons.
Michael Coroza of the Ateneo, the respected professor of Filipino and Philippine literature at the Ateneo, pointed this out to me as he recalls, “Ridicule and humor were part of the verbal arts.”
In fact, ridicule and humor were important features of the Balagtasan, he noted, adding. “Kung nagiging parang personal man, laging naiuugnay pa rin sa paksang pinagtataluhan.”
Yes, sometimes these exchanges can also go too far. Professor pointed to rap battles.
“Personalan ang tirahan at talagang ang layunin yata ay ang ibagsak ang kalaban sa anumang paraan kaya’t walang pakundangan at diretsahan kung magsabi ng masama sa kalaban. Na, sa tingin ko, kung balat-sibuyas ang masasabihan, ay talagang makakapatay ng tao.”
The challenge is to have a society in which racist, obnoxious, hateful ideas are automatically rejected, or don’t even exist — but one where the typical response to these ideas is to say: “What you said sucks, and we will tell the world it sucks and trust that, eventually, most people will see it that way too.”
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