If anyone doubted the power of cartoons before January 7th, they surely don’t anymore. I’ve watched the news unfold with horror, of course, but also with a desire to understand what it all means. I’m always wary of narratives that emerge in the immediate aftermath of events like this—was the murder of the French cartoonists inspired by a desire to squelch free speech and satire, which has been the popular assumption, or a strictly a response to the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in ANY form? I think there’s a difference, if only because unless your notion of free speech boils down being able to draw the founder of Islam—and apparently for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists it did—you still don’t have much to fear, at least if you live in a Western democracy.
When I first saw the Hebdo cartoons, my immediate thought was “What were they thinking?” I never doubted there was a right to publish them, but what was the point of drawing Mohammed on all fours, naked and with his butt facing the viewer, even if it was really well done? I’ve been convinced in the time since that these images, regarded in context, were intended not as an expression of prejudice but of principal. Charlie Hebdo regards religion in any form as an instrument of oppression, an institution to be debunked. That’s not an opinion I share, but it’s one I can accept and understand, with a long history in France.
That said, while I’m someone who has both drawn political cartoons and transgressive “alternative” comics, I’m not and never was Charlie.Though I’ve offended plenty of folks in my day and fielded my share of angry emails and creepy phone calls, I’ve never had any impulse to denigrate people’s religious beliefs or ethnicities, even to make a larger point. In the last few days, I’ve read some criticism of American cartoonists and satirists for being more timid than their French counterparts, but I don’t think at least my personal aversion to that material is based on any fears of not being “politically correct”. In American society the boundaries of acceptable discourse are just different. And freely chosen since, unlike in France, the American right of free speech is legally absolute.
There are as many kinds of cartoonists as there are writers and musicians. Some draw funny stories about family life for the newspapers and do comics and cartoons for business and education. Some hurl brickbats at the powers that be, thumbing their noses at what they feel are the forces of oppression. What we all have in common is the impulse to project ourselves into the world through a combination of words and drawn images and perhaps a tendency to not take completely seriously even the things we actually do take pretty seriously, to constantly question both the world around us and our deepest selves. I don’t do the sort of work the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did, but I admire them. They stood up bravely for what they felt was the truth and were, not incidentally, incredibly good at their art. It goes without saying that they didn’t deserve what happened to them, but that would be true even if they had been mere hatemongers who sucked. Cartoons, even bad ones, can have incredible power. All we as cartoonists can do is try to employ that power in a way that’s true to ourselves and our view of the world, and hope for the best. An aspiration we must unfortunately share with those looking to shop at kosher markets.