(By WEE Jing Ting, 25 January 2015)
Of all the successive atrocities that have befallen Paris, the Charlie Hebdo massacre has received extraordinary attention because it directly attacks what is considered most dear to Western democracy—the right to free speech. But in enshrining the 12 journalists as martyrs of this freedom, the media has also brought much criticism upon itself.
Here are four excerpts from an article by Michael Lerner, a Rabbi and editor of an interfaith publication based in the United States, who reveals the media’s hypocrisy in the wake of this massacre. Each of these excerpts is followed by questions and ideas for your consideration.
…I had to wonder about the way the massacre in Paris is being depicted and framed by the Western media as a horrendous threat to Western civilization, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, I wondered about the over-heated nature of this description. It didn’t take me long to understand how problematic that framing really is.
The media (and not just the Western media) selectively silences subjects by not reporting or by downplaying certain facts. In addition to the instances Rabbi Lerner goes on to mention, there were also scant reports on the firing of Maurice Sinet, a former cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo, as well as the banning of Dieudonne M’bala’s shows because of the perceived anti-Semitic content of his comedy.
Can you think of recent events or issues, local or global, that have received skewed coverage or where the coverage contains certain gaps? Leave a comment if anything comes to mind!
And when the horrific assassinations of 12 media people and the wounding of another 12 media workers resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds?
Why do you think certain world events get more attention than others? What measure(s) do we use to determine the worth of human life? Are some lives worth more than others?
If you think “yes”, can you come up with justifiable reasons to support your conclusion? If you think “no”, why not?
Should there even be measures to assess the worth of human life?
Rabbi Lerner also thinks that the media systematically dehumanizes “whoever is the perceived threatening ‘other’”, usually minorities, with no regard to how they might feel:
That [same] media was outraged at the attempt by some North Korean allied group to scare people away from watching a movie ridiculing and then planning to assassinate the current (immoral) ruler of Korea, never wondering how we’d respond if a similar movie had been made ridiculing and planning the assassination of an American president.
Similarly, the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.
But Charlie Hebdo is satire. Does that mean we censor or else cease satirizing altogether? Another columnist, David Brooks, in his article, has us consider the issue from the point of view of those who are usually satirized. He says:
“Fundamentalists are people who take everything literally. They are incapable of multiple viewpoints. They are incapable of seeing that while their religion may be worthy of deepest reverence, it is also true that most religions are kind of weird.”
Yet the ability to take on different perspectives is the very thing that satire requires, because it uses irony and humor to expose follies and provoke critical thinking. As such, not everyone will or can appreciate such jesting.
Finally, Rabbi Lerner leaves us with two questions worth considering:
But [the media] ridicule[s] everyone’s religion, not just the Muslim’s, so isn’t that fair?
And shouldn’t free speech and individual human liberties be our highest value?
It may be helpful to consider what the underlined terms mean by looking at how the 1976 European Convention on Human Rights defines freedom of expression (Article 10), as well as how the Preamble, and Articles 1 and 19 of the United States’ Declaration of Human Rights articulate the notion of the fundamentals of freedom.
To read the Rabbi’s response to the two questions, scroll to the bottom of his article.
Do you agree with Rabbi Lerner’s stance and justifications?
For further reading, you may want to check out these two pieces by authors who both identify as not being a Charlie (#JeNeSuisPasCharlie), yet they hold very different views:
- David Brooks’ article (cited earlier), which proposes a very friendly solution to the handling of satire in the aftermath.
- A political blog’s entry that adopts a hardline stance against Charlie’s brand of free speech, complete with examples from the publication.
Let’s test the soundness of the claims contained within the three quotes by running a couple of thought experiments.
Consider this hypothetical scenario:
Case 1: Jing versus Ting
Jing and Ting are best friends. But one day, they have an epic fight. In sheer anger, Jing ends up saying some really, really hurtful things to her friend. Her words deal a serious blow to Ting’s feelings. Ting says, “Jing! You have done me a great wrong in exercising no consideration whatsoever for my feelings!” But Jing, behaving like a defensive cow, says, “Oh please … you only have yourself to blame. You chose to feel hurt by my words. You could have just ignored whatever I said, ha …”. Hearing this, Ting cries.
Think carefully, now. Is Jing completely wrong? Or does she actually have a point? Consider this other scenario:
Case 2: Faraway Kingdom
Imagine a faraway kingdom where it is known to the public and its citizens that the kingdom endorses and practises freedom of speech as a principle. While it is true that everyone speaks freely there, it is also the case that no one has ever said anything unpleasant, offensive or controversial — everyone just speaks freely about nice things. But unbeknownst to the public and its citizens, the government actually has a law stipulating that anyone who criticises the government will be executed. But no one ever says anything bad about the government, because everyone happens to be very happy with the government. Do you think this faraway kingdom actually has freedom of speech?
How do these thought experiments connect with the claims expressed in the three quotes above?
Consider, also, the substantive points in this interesting video:
Leave a comment to tell me what you think about any of the ideas above! I thought this post would be timely given the recent “What’s In The News” sharing on Charlie Hebdo.