On a recent trip to the movies I was reminded of the current debate regarding whether it’s OK to criticize Charlie Hebdo. Inside the theater, a man would not stop talking during the movie. It wasn’t a comedy or one of those Rocky Horroresque type deals where the audience is supposed to engage. It was, ironically enough, a war movie.
The irony is that while the battles played on the big screen, another type of battle was about to play out in real life. A dude in his 20s was told by an elderly guy to keep it down. No big deal, right? Happens all the time.
A condemnation of a barbaric killing and a critique of a cartoonist’s overreach are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to choose one or the other. You can actually choose both.
What follows is a description of something that doesn’t happen all the time. The young guy tells the older guy to mind his own f---ing business. He then tosses in a couple of other non-delicate words suggesting what the older dude should do with certain of his body parts.
As if that were not enough, he insults the older man’s wife and goes on to describe her body parts as crudely as one could speak to a woman, no less a woman who could have been his grandmother. All this because he was told to pipe down in a movie theater, I ask myself?
The usher arrives just in time, I thought, and then again maybe not. It appears the older guy simply couldn’t handle the final round of insults. Before the usher can intervene, the older dude pops the discourteous youngster sending him reeling into the row of seats in front of him.
Finally, enough people in the theater hold back both combatants and the movie proceeds with those involved in the mêlée kicked out. It was, (insert your own joke here), the show within a show, but one that highlights that two wrongs are not mutually exclusive. Talking during a movie and using crude and offensive language are both wrong, but so is striking someone who hasn’t physically harmed you.
So it is with the attack on Charlie Hebdo. No one, save perhaps a terrorist, would defend the actions of the gunmen who killed 12 of its employees. And it’s terribly important when analyzing this attack to make that perfectly clear. One of the men catching the most heat these days in the aftermath of the shooting does just that. Bill Donahue of the Catholic League makes it clear that what the gunmen did is most reprehensible.
Donahue is no shrinking violet and it’s safe to say that few people, my friend Abe Forman of the ADL among them, know as much about media overreach and insensitivities when it comes to religion as he does. So when he says “there are two issues and both bear consideration,” he may be right.
Donahue writes that “those who work at this newspaper have a long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning of figures and this is especially true of their depictions of religious figures.”
"For example,” says Donahue, “they have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms. They have also shown Muhammad in pornographic poses.
What unites Muslims in their anger against Charlie Hebdo is the vulgar manner in which Muhammad has been portrayed. What they object to is being intentionally insulted over the course of many years. On this aspect, I am in total agreement with them.”
Donahue says you can’t have it both ways. When I queried him on his defense of Muslims, he answered with one word: “consistency.” The man who has spent the better part of his life defending Catholics against those who purposely humiliate and insult their religion says he feels morally obliged to do the same for Islam against similar attacks.
Bill Donahue, steadfast in his denunciations of Muslim extremists, has often even gone after the media for being soft on the subject. Now, it’s Donahue who is being accused of going soft. But is he? Or he is just saying what many of us are afraid to say given the present circumstances.
It is this: a condemnation of a barbaric killing and a critique of a cartoonist’s overreach are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to choose one or the other. You can actually choose both.
By the way, Donahue is not alone. The Europe Editor of the Financial Times published these words just hours after the shooting; "Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims.”
Tony Barber condemns the killers, while criticizing the overreach of the cartoonists. “This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion," he wrote.
"It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.”
It makes me think back to the incident at the movies. The old man had no right to pop the younger man in the mouth. He was wrong to strike the first blow. But the young man was also wrong to insult both him and his wife in such a cruel and thoughtless way.
No, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. This is an instance where we can; in fact, must have the right to have it both ways. We should all defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish even when it offends. But we must also retain, defend even revere our right to be offended.