Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech and hypocrisy

I try not to get too political here on the blog, but like the rest of the civilized world it’s impossible not to be shocked and very angry about this week’s murder of cartoonists, staff and police at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. While I don’t personally agree with the editorial approach of Charlie Hebdo and its desire to offend one of the world’s largest religions, the idea of anyone being killed for any reason – let alone drawing cartoons – is completely abhorrent.

To paraphrase the French writer Voltaire, while we may not agree with what someone has to say, we must be willing to defend their right to say it. Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy.

The horrific events in France felt especially visceral this week because we were working on a sequence of the PuppetVision documentary dealing with political puppetry and I’ve been studying the history of puppetry artists like The Moustache Brothers who have literally risked their lives for the sake of free speech. As Jon Stewart pointed out, humour and entertainment should not have to be an act of courage, but all too often throughout history cartoonists, puppeteers and other artists have had to pay the price for speaking truth to power and taking a stand against those who would suppress basic human rights like freedom of speech.

So it’s not surprising that the puppetry community has spoken out strongly. UNIMA has issued a formal statement condemning all forms of violence and terrorism. Puppeteers like Gary Friedman (who is currently directing a documentary about free speech and political puppetry) and artists behind the online puppetry magazine Puppetring have shared their thoughts on their blogs and on social media.

It was so inspiring to see millions of everyday people marching in the streets of Paris and other cities around the world today as a show of solidarity and an affirmation of freedom of expression. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the aftermath of tragedies like this, there were no shortage of politicians there to try to grandstand and mug for the cameras. It did not go unnoticed that many of the same leaders in the march who claimed to support freedom of speech represent governments that treat journalists as terrorists, jail them, intimidate political opponents, whip bloggers, muzzle scientists, or ban theatre staged by perceived enemies of the state.

While it might seem unfair to compare the massacre in Paris or the beating, imprisonment and/or murder of journalists with defunding scientific research or outlawing a children’s puppet festival, the simple fact is that a government or organization that tries to suppress speech it dislikes relatively politely is just as reprehensible as one that does so violently.

Either you stand for free speech, or you stand with the tyrants and terrorists.

Je suis Charlie.


18/1/15 Update: This post was updated to include a relevant episode of ZA News.