About a week ago, Garry Trudeau, the creator of the iconic comic strip Doonesbury, delivered a speech at Long Island University’s George Polk Awards where he was being honored with a well-deserved lifetime achievement award. His remarks about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons during his acceptance speech have reinvigorated the debate about freedom of expression and whether or not there should be limits. Trudeau said:
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and David Frum of The Atlantic both framed their condemnation of Trudeau’s remarks into a Left vs Right and Unprivileged vs Privileged debate. I don’t buy their line of reasoning — heck, I’d probably be considered in that camp of the “Western Left” that Douthat and Frum refer to. Like many of my colleagues, I am a big admirer of Trudeau’s work and I highly respect his talent and many achievements. He is one of the very few who can be considered a true giant in the editorial cartooning profession — but I do disagree with him on this one.
Unfortunately, whether he meant it or not, some of Trudeau’s words sounded like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had it coming. This is a dangerous suggestion to even float out there when it comes to cartoons when there are extremists who would rather shoot than take the thought and time to write a letter to the editor. I would rather err on the side of unrestricted speech. I would rather criticize and ridicule cartoons that are racist, or homophobic, or what I find personally offensive rather than inadvertently give people the wrong idea that certain types of speech go so over the line that violent actions against cartoonists can be understood or justified. There are many people and groups whose actions and opinions I find hateful and intolerant (the Westboro Baptist Church’s funeral protests, Terry Jones’s Koran burnings, Jerry Falwell blaming “pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians” for Sept. 11 to name a few) but I just shake my head and get to work at my drawing board.
In his speech, Trudeau referred to Jon Stewart’s comments right after the Charlie Hebdo murders that comedy in a free society shouldn’t take courage. Well, Jon Stewart also said “there is no sense to be made of this” and “for however frustrating and outraged the back and forth can become it’s still a back and forth between…Team Civilization”.
The issue isn’t about “just because one has the right to offend doesn’t mean they must”. The real question is, when someone, a writer or a cartoonist or anyone, offends a group while exercising freedom of expression, should we somehow try to explain or understand the violent reactions? One can make the argument cartoons are vulgar, in poor taste, racist or sexist (and I’ve seen plenty of those but can confirm I’ve never wanted to kill a cartoonist for drawing one. I have made snide comments and rolled my eyes, though). But people don’t die during demonstrations because a cartoonist drew a long nose; they die because someone chooses to violently react to being insulted or offended.
It’s of course completely valid to debate our biases and prejudices. Debate and demonstrations move the conversation forward and enable people to see past their own narrow views. But let’s stop worrying about that red line that can’t and shouldn’t be made. Trudeau makes the point that “at some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism”. Well, at least my fanaticism doesn’t result in me taking someone’s life.