By Warren Yates '15
On January 7th, Parisian brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi staged an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left dead ten journalists and two police officers. The publication was known for risqué cartoons and takedowns of politicians, public figures, and religious symbols of all faiths including Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, which appears to have motivated the massacre. The Kouachi brothers’ killings took the form of targeted executions: the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers, reportedly stormed an editorial meeting and called the names of specific editors and cartoonists before shooting them. The incident ended with a hostage situation in Dammartin-en-Goële on January 9th in which the brothers were killed by French police.
The entire saga re-raises the issue evoked by North Korea’s hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment late last year: in a radicalizing and increasingly militarized world, does an entity, be it an individual or an organization, have a right to free speech or a right not to be offended (and, inversely, a duty not to offend)?
The tremendous outpouring of support among the French people, who carried signs proclaiming Je suis Charlie—I am Charlie—suggests that, at least in France, society ardently embraces the former and decries violence as retribution. (Incidentally, France boasts the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.) And rightly so. If but one time free speech is compromised at the behest of a violent regime, so will it continue to be restricted until it ceases to exist at all. One could argue that with even a single restriction of any kind, speech ceases to be free.
With that said, the foremost goal of a newspaper, even a satirical one, should be to inform, comment, and hold up to society a mirror for self-reflection—not merely to insult and disparage. It is the duty of editorial staff to ensure that this integrity of purpose is maintained. The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Satirists such as those at Charlie Hebdo play an essential role in public discourse by saying what needs to be said, regardless of palatability or social norms.
Would Charlie Hebdo have found in the US the support it had in France? Would the US, with its professed love for free speech, have even tolerated Charlie Hebdo? I’m far from the first commentator to observe that the answer is a resounding “no.” It would be anathema to advertisers, publicly traded media companies wouldn’t want to own it, universities wouldn’t tolerate it. Even readers would probably be hard to come by. It would find no shelter. This country has come to fear political incorrectness more than it fears the inflexibility, uniformity of thought, and polarization that results from ideological isolationism. We have conservative news outlets for conservatives, liberal news media for liberals, and so on, such that most people are able to narrow their field of vision until they see only what they already believe to be true. And the country’s intellectual landscape is diminished for it.
We as students of the University of Chicago are fortunate to be at an institution that fiercely values ideological independence (for evidence, look no further than last September’s severing of ties with the Confucius Institute). We Chicago Booth students are fortunate to have this publication in which to say whatever we please. I urge my fellow students not to take these for granted.