Freedom of expression is a muscle to be used

From Paris to Pyongyang, the world seems overrun with people who violently oppose satire. Last month, North Koreans hacked Sony over “The Interview,” a movie that makes fun of Kim Jung Un. When that didn’t stop release of the movie, Un threatened nuclear war against the U. S.

This month, twelve people, including four renowned cartoonists, were gunned down in Paris for satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in their paper, called Charlie Hedbo. This shocking act of violence follows the 2011 firebombing of their office for a similar “offense.”

While those of us who write for a living have always wanted to believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, this is a new twist. Now it’s satire in film and cartoons that is mightier than the sword – so mighty that it draws threats of nuclear destruction, and savage assassination.

It’s tempting, apparently, to temper the criticism of the violence and threats of violence with criticism of the quality of the satire. In the case of the “The Interview,” reviewers who found the movie juvenile and offensive swerved into dangerous moral territory when they described it as “provocative,” as if provocation (or simply bad taste) should ever warrant censorship, wholesale hacking, or threats of violence.

Similarly, though no one defends the carnage in Paris, there are rumblings about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad being dangerously blasphemous. In the context of French society, where large populations of Muslims from former French colonies live in suburban ghettoes and are subject to daily discrimination, there is a cauldron of anger that is both close to home and close to the boiling point. And there is a growing nativist movement in France that fuels racist and anti-Muslim sentiment. Those conditions are the far more significant provocation.

Satire is inevitably offensive and provocative, and the best satirists generally tend to offend everyone. Certainly this has been true of Charlie Hebdo, where cartoonists depicted the Pope, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary as blasphemously abdthe Prophet Mohammad. While some have accused them of hate speech, it’s clear that what motivated them was not hate but humor. They aimed to enlist their readers in laughing at the absurdity of all rigid religious dogma, at all pompous authority, and at all the human failings that inhibit our striving for equality, liberty, and honesty.

This is a noble pursuit, even when – perhaps especially when – it comes with such enormous risks. Some satirists have shrunk from those risks; a few years ago South Park was prevented by the Comedy Central network from showing a far less incendiary image of the Prophet Muhammad. It should be humbling to us that the French, who are so often stereotyped as pansies, braved this risk and paid its terrible price.

Freedom of expression is like a muscle that must be used to remain strong. So we all ought to honor those four French cartoonists and their colleagues – including even the magazine’s janitor – for giving it such a thorough workout.

We may all weep for the loss of their lives and the terror that has been visited on Paris. But we must also recognize, as International New York Times cartoonist Patrick Chappatte has done, that “Without humor, we are all dead.”