Caught in the quiet desperation of my mundane daily tasks, which for the last 6 months have meant an interrupted 24/7 working routine, I had finally decided -‘given up’ would be a more suitable expression- not to comment on last Wednesday’s massacre. I would be too late, possibly too lame, and certainly redundant, in the wake of the massive, comforting response coming from voices everywhere out there. Anything I could offer would have to be rushed, and probably too banal. And if there’s something this doesn’t deserve is to be banalized -or to be instrumentalized as a way to self-promote oneself, which is also an inevitable side effect of those tragedies-gone-viral. I understand the power of ‘every little voice joining the chorus’ >insert proper English idiom here<, but when figures such as Albert Uderzo have already offered their own contribution, I’d rather back off and listen to them.
But then, this morning I came across David Brooks’ piece in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times, ‘I am not Charlie Hebdo’, which after consternating me with its deceptive title, stroke me as a particularly lucid comment on those who call themselves proponents of the freedom of speech… but just in the right amount, ok?
In his piece, Brooks rightly argues that
“…the journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. (…) Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.
So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.(…)
In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.
Healthy societies, in other words (…) do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect (…). The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.”
And that is precisely the point: Maybe Brooks ‘is not’ Charlie Hebdo. Maybe he doesn’t agree with their opinions, maybe he finds them unnecessarily harsh, occasionally puerile or offensive. I, myself, find some of their stuff amazingly clever, some other rather trite, some too gross, some directly unfunny. And, the point is: It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to buy the magazine, because whether you like it or not is ultimately irrelevant.
Some years ago, Stephen Fry, in one of his most (among his many) memorable quotes said “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?” He couldn’t put it in a more eloquent way. People get offended. I get offended on a daily basis: By so-called politicians, by people who call themselves socialists as long as their money is safe -or, you know, those who believe in democracy as long as they are the ones who rule-, by TV programs where idiots are paid great sums for exhibiting their own idiocy, and become role models right away, by architects who think they can speak about anything art/philosophy/science-related -and people have to listen to them- because, you know, they practice Architecture (capital A here), by so-called academics who… the list is endless.
So, as Stephen Fry so aptly puts it, fucking what? The ability of human beings to be offended by the most diverse causes is infinite. Does this mean there are topics that shouldn’t be addressed? Are there things we shouldn’t be able to joke about? Why? Because they offend someone? Because they lack good taste? So what? Who defines good taste? Where are the guardians of good taste every time I turn on my TV set? You don’t like Howard Stern’s show? Ok, I can understand it: So don’t watch it.
So, you’re not Charlie Hebdo. That’s ok, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to like it. Just be glad it can be published*.
[*With my apologies to David Brooks for my butchering of his much more complex article, to the followers of this blog for the lack of a cartoon, and to Simone Florena for my clumsy manipulation of his photograph]