Unpleasant Observations in Context

Unpleasant Observations in Context

The recent murder in Paris of artists employed by the provocative alternative media publication Charlie Hebdo raises a number of critical questions and that, in turn, requires context with respect to issues of artistic freedom of expression and, … murder. We assume that the murders were retaliation for offensive cartoons involving the Islamic Prophet Mohamed. We also assume that such cartoons were protected under the French constitution as freedom of expression. Some also assume that freedom of expression is absolute or should be absolute. All of those assumptions bear investigation that will probably not be taken all that seriously.

The facts are that in France and Germany as well as other countries, there are double standards concerning freedom of expression based on the topic. These are in addition to those limits based on public safety such as limitations on fraud or false alarms (e.g., shouting fire where there is none in order to induce panic).  There is no freedom of expression in most of the Western World when it involves anti-Semitism or questions involving the reality or extent of Holocaust (at least as it pertains to the Jewish people). That selectivity is problematic. There are topics that are as offensive to other ethnic groups. The cartoon that probably triggered the Parisian murder spree was not intended as humor but to generate the deepest level of offense possible towards another persecuted people. The underlying problem is very likely to involve that double standard. Perhaps the sensitivities of no single group of people should be held superior to that of others. And we need to decide whether freedom of expression excludes the right to deliberately and profoundly offend or whether it needs to be absolute. Both are very problematic but neither is as problematic as a selective view privileging one group over another. As an artist and an academic, I support an absolutist interpretation, but not without trepidation.

Of course, murder is murder, but murder has also become a relative issue in today’s world. Many states, France among them, permit state murder as a result of military attacks in undeclared wars, whether of combatants denominated terrorists or innocents who have the bad fortune of, … well. ,,, being in the way. And if statistics have any relevance, it appears that murder of Muslims is much less problematic than the deaths of any other religious group. That probably does not sit well with Muslims and leads to very unfortunate reactions such as that recently seen in Paris, now somewhat spreading in France.

The reactions we just had the misfortune to witness are based on emotion rather than reason as they will prove very counterproductive. The governments that are promoting massive Islamophobia on myriad fronts couldn’t be more grateful and will rush to use these murders to their advantage. They couldn’t have been more useful if they’d been planned and orchestrated directly, or even indirectly. They will certainly be used to derail Palestinian aspirations, perhaps subtly, perhaps not. That, in turn, will be seen by the most radical and violent elements in Islam as justifying both the murders and many other acts of violence. And those in between, the perplexed and frustrated public, will be easily led into accepting greater restrictions on liberty and expression, in the name of, … well, … liberty and expression.

The worldwide reaction, “I am Charley” is beautiful from an artistic perspective. It’s a shout in favor of liberty of expression, but as in the case of the attacks against the New York City World Trade Center on September 11 of 2001, the result will likely be an acceleration of the increasingly totalitarian and militarized world we live in. Very carefully orchestrated. And we will all be the poorer for it.

Sad, terribly sad, but emotive reactions are like that.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2015; all rights reserved