Cities have long been sites for conflicts — wars, racism, religious hatred, and expulsion of the poor — yet, where national states have historically responded by militarizing conflict, cities have tended to triage conflict through commerce and civic activity. But cities are losing this capacity, becoming sites for asymmetric war and urban violence. The search for national security today is a source of urban insecurity … What may be good for the protection of the national state apparatus may come at an increasingly high price to major cities.
— Saskia Sassen in The New Urbanism – In the Future, What will our Cities Look Like?
The day after the Charlie Hebdo attack I was in line at a public notary’s office in São Paulo. The local news, playing on a flat-screen TV meant to placate those of us waiting for an official stamp on this or that official document, showed footage of the massacre. My thoughts were immediately drawn to the corollaries between the attack and the situation surrounding the Danish cartoons published in 2005, which were thereafter published by Charlie Hebdo. There is now a body of thought and analysis from the Danish cartoon crisis (aka the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy) that can be brought to bear on last Wednesday’s attack and the ensuing media storm, such as Peter Hervik’s 2012 study entitled “The Danish Muhammad Cartoon Conflict,” in which he argues:
The structure and logic of the news genre rely on a model that insists on seeing two sides of a conflict, which on one hand dovetails nicely with the narrative of clash of civilization (Peterson 2007), and on the other relies on a domestication of news which resonates with the readers’ view of themselves and the Muslim world. In a study of the Boston Globe’s coverage of the cartoon conflict Mark Allen Peterson concluded that readers are invited to see the events following the publication of the cartoons as a single global event in which rational Western actors engaged in a rational, democratic practice are met with a hostile global response by undifferentiated “Muslims” whose protests are not seen as forms of democratic expression but as irrational actions (Peterson 2007).
It has been well documented by left-leaning news outlets (including OpenDemocracy, Red Flag, Revolution News, and Jacobin Magazine) and media watchdog outfits (including Media Matters for America and Reporters without Borders) how conservatives (Fox News, for instance) have exploited the Charlie Hebdo attack, the following details, reflections and, ultimately, decisions — informed by personal experience and identity as well as professional frequency and access to information — suggest how even the framing of shared condolences and outrage can carry a subversive political agenda in multiple and at times unintended forms.
Accounts of the Charlie Hebdo attack and reactions by eminent thinkers — including Tariq Ramadan, Salman Rushdie, Joe Sacco, Robert Crumb, and Slavoj Žižek — have provided many angles from which to see the situation. Given the role that freeDimensional — an organization I founded to help artists in danger through safe haven and related services — plays, my colleagues and I are expected to react, as are the ranks of most free expression organizations.
Four of the 12 people killed in the attack were cartoon journalists. Over the past decade, freeDimensional has worked with cartoonists in Cameroon, Syria, France, Iran, Malaysia, the United States, and elsewhere. As with many artists and culture workers, cartoonists tend to wear several hats and do a range of work to make a living. Whereas some cartoonists are strictly journalists, many are not and see themselves more broadly, or adjacently, as visual artists. Cartoon journalists often “fall between the cracks” because of their multidisciplinary professional status, and the reactions of journalism watchdog organizations (such as the Committee to Protect Journalists) to an attack on a media outlet that employs cartoonists are often different from their reactions when an independent cartoonist is attacked. In the space of free speech and related safety mechanisms, practices closer to the triad of academia, journalism, and literature have more overlaps and a stronger history of support than other professions. Even if the argument can be made that in countries with high illiteracy rates, cartoonists are more widely read and thus more susceptible to disagreement and pushback, levels of support to independent cartoonists resemble those for visual artists more than they do those for writers — who benefit from the assistance programs like the aforementioned Committee to Protect Journalists and Paris-based Reporters without Borders, as well as the Rory Peck Trust, PEN, International Cities of Refuge, Scholar Rescue Fund, the Scholars at Risk network, and others. This has to do with a few different factors. One is that cartoonists are often freelancers and rarely work for media outlets full-time. In this way, cartoonists experience treatment similar to stringers in the vocational space of journalism. The media conglomerates and businesses that make up this industry tend to support watchdog organizations like those mentioned above, thereby reifying a system that often subjugates all types of freelancers to lower levels of support.
Lastly, cartoonists often resemble other visual artists in their motivation to produce. While many cartoons are commissioned by news outlets, cartoonists tend to produce work of their own volition. Such was the case with Ali Ferzat‘s caricature likening Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Muammar Gaddafi, which was featured on his personal website and resulted in both of his hands being broken by the president’s thugs. Despite these factors, organizations such as Cartoonists Rights Network International and the Cartoon Movement provide a base of support for independent cartoonists where not much else exists.
Though freeDimensional was listed on both the Index on Censorship and PEN International websites as a supporter of the campaign catalyzed by last Wednesday’s massacre, I have had second thoughts about the political agendas embedded in the various forms of the broader, viral campaign. Many of us reacted quickly in the midst of our shock. It’s expected, naturally, that a free expression organization should have a stance on such things, but I confess that in my haste to express sadness and outrage I agreed with the decision to affiliate with parts of the campaign with which I actually don’t agree. I hope explaining the decisions my colleagues and I made helps deepen the debate surrounding the attack and its ensuing media storm, and gets into the crevices of nuance that sometimes have free expression and social justice largely overlapping and at other times puts them in diametric opposition. Let’s start by looking more closely at two prominent segments of the campaign.
The Index on Censorship action specifically asked that news outlets and free expression organizations broadcast “a section of work from Charlie Hebdo to show support for the journalists and also to make a strong statement to stand up for free speech” at a coordinated time the day after the attack. When Index asked freeDimensional to comply, I skimmed the request email too quickly and didn’t latch onto the specific request to publish a cartoon. Later that day, when I saw the one featured on the Index homepage of two men — a male staffer with a pencil behind his ear and a Muslim man — kissing under the words “L’amour plus fort que la haine” (“Love is stronger than hate,” from the November 8, 2011 edition of Charlie Hebdo) against a backdrop of the smoldering ashes of the magazine’s previous office, I realized that I cannot possibly agree to that. As a gay man who works in the space of social justice, I looked deeply into the instance of the Dutch government deploying an image in the Muslim world — via its embassies and specifically at the visa-accessing moment in consular offices — of two men kissing. I tend to agree with Judith Butler’s take on the situation, which is that state superstructures can easily deploy one minority against another.
There is an additional modus operandi that freeDimensional follows that is not explicitly stated: We do not organizationally speak out or advocate on the social and political issues surrounding an artist’s danger at the same time as we are working to secure an artist’s safety. There is perhaps an expandable correlation between this operating principle and why issuing Charlie Hebdo cartoons virally in the wake of the Paris attack is problematic, and even inappropriate for an organization that regularly works with cartoonists in conflict settings.
The Je suis Charlie meme may have originated with the person controlling the Charlie Hebdo website after the attack, but it has been picked up by organizations such as PEN International and tweeted over a million times. After reading Facebook posts by a range of colleagues and acquaintances from Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere in the world, and having discussions with non-white colleagues (or simply those thinking differently) in the US, I began to understand their aversion to the Je suis Charlie marker as well as some corollaries to the debate over the #BlackLivesMatter meme. Similarly, the internet is rife with alternative ‘#JeSuis __’ hashtags, such as JeSuisAhmed, the rallying cry used to commemorate the murder of the Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet, who was killed while protecting the Charlie Hebdo office during the attack, and JeSuisKhaledIdris for the Eritrean refugee killed this week in Dresden. These social media counter narratives insist that not all people “are” Charlie, even if they are greatly saddened by what happened to the journalists in last week’s attack.
There are other images and quotes trending that evoke the quality of “liberty” and that become problematic when coupled with various political agendas and French national rhetoric specifically. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, as Scott Long put it, we are “manhandled by these moments of mass outrage.”
What happened last Wednesday in Paris is not only gruesome and inhumane, but affronts our sensibilities and the codes of justice handed down by our forefathers. While relevant because they reify values like liberty and free expression required for the functioning of a just society, it is important to remember that these ethical theories of justice were framed by white men from the West who knew less about the functioning of the world than any person with internet access might today. Many of these epistemic theories of truth are normative in nature, and carry residuals of modernization theory. The considerations of a free expression network such as freeDimensional, which works with people all over the world, are necessarily different from those of western-based NGOs, which work for people in the same places yet retain hierarchical characteristics of the limited development theories that emerged at the end of colonization, and are easily debunked by applying a social justice or community organizing lens.
It seems impossible for the current state of affairs to normalize unless we are willing to have some serious conversations about the role of dominant culture in maintaining a colonial status quo and its complicity in a multi-source terrorism that has been sired by global inequity. What I most want to communicate and would ask that freeDimensional communicate (something that is not wholly up to me) is that we are outraged by what has happened, we are sad, we are distraught, and that we are thinking deeply on what to do both in the immediate aftermath and in the long run to make the world a more equitable place for living and supporting artists who reflect our world back to us in magnificent, haunting, courageous, and provocative ways. While I won’t simply remove freeDimensional’s name from the viral campaign (if that is even possible), I do suggest that we dig deeper into the messiness and attempt to have this conversation removed of political rhetoric in our most humble voices and across a range of human experiences, lest what happened at the office of Charlie Hebdo (and elsewhere) becomes a powder keg for further violence.