Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je suis Charlie

I am Charlie Hebdo
Je suis Charlie.
I write this today as live news covers the deadly attack on the Paris office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, with 12 killed for their political coverage, including an editor and several cartoonists and writers.
As a newspaper columnist myself, I strongly identify with freedom of speech and oppose censorship of ideas.
But my personal history with expression and censorship goes back further. Growing up, I loved the irreverent satire of Mad and Cracked magazines, and later National Lampoon and occasionally, Canada's own Frank. In high school, students were allowed to do morning announcements in a comedic style; sometimes our live broadcasts crossed a line administration felt was too far, and were censored. Friends were told not to wear to school T-shirts that might offend, including one featuring an angry shepherd goading his sheep captioned “Get the flock out of here!” (Ah, the 80s, such innocent times).
Later, I wrote for, then edited for several years mathNEWS (“The paper with a little math and even less news; news with a math slant!”), fortnightly student publication of the University of Waterloo Math faculty. One time, sister publication The Cord, student paper of neighbouring Wilfred Laurier University, published an article detailing which sexual practices were or were not likely to transmit HIV/AIDS. It was very explicit, but also factual and, in those times of confusion and ignorance, very important. But the student union took offense and shut the paper down temporarily. I submitted a story covering highlights of the “banned” information, but my own editors refused to run it, under chill of the other shutdown. mathNEWS itself occasionally took heat, including probation and awkward meetings in the Dean's office, for publishing irreverent articles or cartoons.
Memorial for journalists killed in war
While teaching in South Korea, visiting Imjingak memorial park, I was particularly moved by a monument to war correspondents killed in the line of fire. I can think of few things braver than going to the front lines, armed only with camera or pen & paper, to bring truth back to the wider world.
Today we are graphically reminded the front line is everywhere. Those who express critical or satirical ideas can be persecuted, even killed for expressing ideas others find threatening or disrespectful, whether the target is Islam or the Russian Orthodox Church or other majority religions. Even enlightened nations like Germany, Iceland, or New Zealand coddle religious sensibilities with laws against “blasphemy”. As reported by CBC, President of the Muslim Council of Montreal Salam Emenyawi condemned the Paris attack as horrific but feels there should be tougher laws around what can be published about religion or putting out religious cartoons that are offensive to some – in favour of freedom of expression but with limits on religious topics.
I disagree completely. While I feel it is cruel to single out average community members for ridicule, and rightly illegal to goad hatred or violence, our political or religious leaders and beliefs need and deserve criticism, satire, even ridicule as necessary. The more an ideology influences our lives, the more it must be questioned, examined, and argued. If anything, laws should allow greater freedom in this direction. French President Fran├žois Hollande rightly declared today’s victims heroes.
Short of deliberately printing false information or calling for hatred of people solely based on their group identification, there should be no limits on the ability to express, question, or criticize ideas, whether in words or pictures. If a set of ideas is worthy, it can easily withstand criticism or ridicule without special legal protections.
I am Charlie.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "There should be no limits on the ability to question"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

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