Pre-amble: [The United Nations‘ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” ]
Once upon a time I had a heated argument with a partner. As I was going off in all cylinders he kept looking at me curiously and when I finally calmed down long enough for him to get a word in edgewise, he smiled deceptively and said “I want to kiss you, but I’ve been thinking about how in the world I could do that. I mean your lips are so big and full. I don’t’ even know from which angle to approach you. I don’t know if I should go left or right or just dive in straight ahead” He said, his head tilting slightly from side to side as if he was attempting to pin down a moving target. His words surprised me, but had the effect of knocking the air out of my argument. An involuntary smile spread itself across my face and I was helpless in preventing the genuine laughter which followed. I remember thinking how amazingly brazen he was. I looked into his gleaming passionate eyes which made a penetrating dance around my face and decided to show him some respect and reward his efforts with a compliment. “Hmmm” I murmured, “I suppose I could kiss you too” I said pausing and repressing the laughter which threatened to overtake coherent speech “but I just have no idea what I would be kissing there, you practically have no lips to speak of. It’s as if the creator was in hurry to finish and just made a straight line, a slit, an opening just so you can claim to have a mouth while on the other hand he spent his precious time and took his time to carefully carve my mouth, creating these dark full, soft, curvy and juicy l…
I’m you sure you can guess how that sentence ended. Don’t worry if you can’t I’ll tell you. That conversation ended in a passionate sensuous kiss in which both of us took great care to find each other’s lips, big and small and allowed them to do the sweet talking. By drawing my attention away from the issue which had me legitimately blowing hot coals at him he redirected the heat into an activity we both enjoyed. In that moment we successfully managed to diffuse a potentially explosive situation by choosing to laugh. It was a highly provocative situation which ended happily ever after.
So how is this tale of a typical lovers tiff linked to Charlie Hedbo? Humour, Satire, Freedom of Speech/Expression, the right to offend and their opposite’s bigotry, hate speech, incitement, all phobias including racism. The later could have been read into the situation described above. Even though the initial misunderstanding was not even close to being a racial incident, my partner’s later comments could through a lens of history and current events be justifiably so classified. The difference was we both took no offense. The situation might have been different of course had one of us been hypersensitive about the size and shape of our lips. If I thought for a moment his statement was derogatory or an insult to my looks, person, history and entire generations of original people, which someone would be forgiven to assume and vice versa, I would be telling a very different story. We both could have given each other a different kind of kiss.
If we are (rightly) to protect and uphold the right to freedom of expression and in particular the right to offend embedded in the freedom of the press, we must know that people will take offence or become duly offended as was our intention when we exercised that right. We should also acknowledge and accept the fact that once we have so exercised our rights we henceforth lose control over how these individuals and or organizations we mean to offend will retaliate or respond once we have successfully offended them.
We have countless examples in recent history of instances where people expressed thoughts and or opinions which have caused those offended by them to react, retaliate or respond, sometimes in the most disproportionately inappropriate ways, because once the fire is raging you cannot dictate the terms. The recent xenophobic attacks against African citizens in Durban, KwaZulu Natal and other parts of South Africa are also a clear example of the power of free speech. In light of this if we are all to rightly ask King Goodwill Zwelithini to take responsibility for his speech, opinions and statements which may have caused, incited and or inspired the brutal attacks on African citizens, if we are right to call his statements: irresponsible and careless, we must by the same token ask Charlie Hedbo – to take full responsibility for its own role in inspiring the attacks of January the 8th.
Charlie Hedbo’s pride lies in its ability to freely and fearlessly poke fun, lampoon and insult everyone they so choose. No idea or person is safe from the scrutiny which flows from their creative pens and pencils. But that freedom or right does not preclude them from responsibility nor does it render them immune from scrutiny, criticism or worse fatal attacks from others.
Everyone has a right to poke fun, to satirize, but if someone does not find your jokes about them particularly funny or amusing, and you persist regardless of the fact that your persistence is making them angry, you will end up with an equal and opposite reaction.
It would be so wonderful to live in societies where people were mature enough to dismiss the Zulu King’s inflammatory statements or respectfully ignore them as if they were never uttered. Perhaps in those societies the king will have been deposed by now and asked to step down for abusing his power and influence. It would be great to live in a world where those who Charlie Hedbo aimed to expose, offend and or poke fun at would examine themselves first, analyse their own behaviour and actions highlighted in those cartoons, and ask themselves if they are in all honesty justified to take offense and if so why? It would be wonderful if they could take a moment to laugh at themselves, before acting on their righteous indignation. It would be truly fantastic to live in a world in which people in all spheres of society would instinctively reflect on and attempt to eliminate their own bigotry before pointing a finger or attacking others. In a fair and just world everyone would be mature and sane enough to understand and know without question that violence cannot be an answer to any offense given or taken. But we don’t live in that world.
For journalists, writers, cartoonists and others to pretend that we do is just as careless, irresponsible and dangerous as the actions of those three gunmen, utterances by the Zulu King and people behind the xenophobic attacks. In the course of our work as journalist’s performing a public service, we encounter resistance from those in power (and in the general public) who are more often than not permanently offended by the truth and our very existence. It is an offence we cannot control but it does not relieve us of the responsibility of conducting our work in fairness. And since everyone has a right to take offence with the work we do as much as we (have a right to) offend in the process of performing a public good, the onus is on us, those who stand for truth and justice to perform our duties with the highest levels of integrity, and the highest commitment to truth, fairness and justice for the greater good and betterment of society. We must take responsibility for the rights and powers bestowed on us to speak truth to power in a way that will not degrade the very values and principles we aim to uphold by holding those in power to account. We must also be accountable for our own actions in spreading ideas and opinions which will incite such violence, first upon us and our ability to perform our duties and or upon the public we serve. We need to use our power wisely, strategically and with soberness. We need to be shrewd and careful, without compromising the truth or being careless with it. The truth is already a hard pill to swallow, adding insult to it, is unlikely to make our work any easier or contribute to peace and justice. We must at all times feverishly endeavour to exercise our rights and freedoms in such a way that they enhance the rights and freedoms of others (n. mandela). This is our mandate. No offense. Perhaps one day we will laugh about it. xx
“You write in order to change the world, if you alter, even by a millimetre the way people see reality, you can change it” James Baldwin