In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in Paris, people the world over expressed their solidarity with the victims using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. Even conservative Francophobes in the US adopted the slogan as a rallying cry for free speech, invoking the predictable theme of good vs. evil. More probing commentaries accused the cartoonists of being racist, anti-Islamic, or at least culturally insensitive, with some pundits explaining why they were not Charlie. Despite assurances from insiders that the paper is actually supportive of minorities, this author remains likewise reluctant to identify with Charlie, although I confess that this wasn’t always the case.
Years ago, seemingly in another lifetime, I was a political cartoonist. My strip, entitled “Channel X,” was published in several local newsweeklies and posted online under the banner of ZNet cartoons. I certainly wasn’t famous, but I was consistent, creating at least one relevant doodle per week for about six years, even whilst living abroad and struggling to stay abreast of American politics via an excruciatingly slow and wonky dial-up Internet connection (this was India, circa 1999).
In its earliest phase, Channel X dealt mainly in absurdity and apocalyptic humor, with occasional cartoons that my young, agnostic, and iconoclastic self considered tastefully irreverent, i.e. “sacrilicious.” Like Charlie Hebdo, I considered myself an equal-opportunity offender, although my favorite target was Christianity, the religion of my upbringing and of mainstream America, the latter of which always received plenty of playful pokes from my pen.
Perhaps it was inevitable that my jabs would eventually hit a sore spot. For one cartoon, I tuned Channel X to the “Salvation Station” to showcase several religiously themed sitcoms, including “Allah in the Family.” That particular frame (marked here with an “X”) featured a robed and bearded, God-like figure as a sit-in for Archie Bunker, telling his kneeling, veiled wife to fix him some meatloaf. At the time, I was ignorant of Islam’s ban on iconography, so when members of the local mosque wrote to ask for an apology from the editor, I gave my boss a bemused shrug. I didn’t apologize, but I never again crossed that particular line with my line art.
In fact, I had already begun adopting a more political stance, shifting my aim from prophets to profiteering and other high crimes, especially those perpetrated by George W. Bush and his neoconservative cronies. In those days, the jokes tended to write themselves, from the commander-in-thief choking on pretzels to the true motives behind what was initially called “Operation Iraqi Liberation” being revealed by its own acronym.
While routinely ridiculing the powers-that-were, I began discovering other, inner powers through daily meditation practice. Before long my explorations of Buddhist philosophy led me to question the ethics behind my chosen vocation: Given that political cartoons tend to draw amusement at someone’s expense, can they be considered right speech? I felt a growing tension between my desire to be the next Tom Tomorrow and my wish to help alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings, including—if not especially—my perceived political enemies. What, after all, did their selfish and destructive behavior signify, if not a deep unhappiness and a profound estrangement from their own essential goodness?
Eventually I quit cartooning, although less for moral reasons than practical ones that culminated in a move to the Left Coast. Over time, my spiritual and political selves became friends under the umbrella of engaged Buddhism, although the two still argue sometimes about the particulars of skillful and effective engagement. My inner activist has found a guiding principle in the injunction to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” whereas my more selfless self aims to end all affliction and strives to follow the Buddha’s rules for right speech, which basically amount to “If you can’t say something true, beneficial, and timely, don’t say anything at all.”
While mourning the senseless loss of life at the Charlie Hebdo offices, we can acknowledge that the paper’s collective commentary, even if often aimed at the comfortable, offers little comfort to the disenfranchised groups that are routinely caricatured and belittled in its pages in an attempt to make political points. Even if one buys the argument that Charlie is not racist or Islamophobic, one must concede that its cartoonists are guilty, as one writer puts it, of frequently “punching down.”
Obviously, this is not a sin for which anyone should be punished, let alone murdered. At the same time, it should also be obvious that free speech has its limits and liabilities, as it necessarily operates within a social context such as a crowded theater (to use a well-worn example) or a culturally divided country like France. To believe in free speech as an absolute right is to engage in a kind of fundamentalism, and isn’t fundamentalism the real problem here?
As I see it, freedom of speech is a kind of superpower. And as Spiderman and his friends have taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. Though we might not always be able to live up to the Buddha’s example, we can strive to speak responsibly and to direct our punches upwards while extending a helping hand downwards, even while balancing on the slippery slope of satire.