I was horrified when I heard the news about the massacre that took place in Paris earlier this month at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a popular French satirical magazine. As an amateur op-ed writer and media law enthusiast, events such as these always affect me deeply.
Two weeks after the devastating day in which 12 people died, and a month after our country’s own scare involving freedom of speech in the film industry, I believe it’s time for us to start deciding where to draw the line between jokes and hate speech, freedom of expression and unnecessary attacks, law-abiding reporting and reckless disregard.
To clarify, I’m one of satire’s biggest fans. But the past month has shown that every strong action elicits a strong response. A look through the archive of Charlie front pages makes one thing very obvious: The collective opinion of the magazine’s editorial board is that Muslim culture is something so ridiculous and easy to make fun of that they do it quite frequently through nudity, sexuality and adult humor.
Yes, they poke fun at others as well: Britain, the Pope and even the Holy Trinity have all been subjects of Charlie’s front page. But when you satirize a highly-revered figure of a culture whose extremists have a strained relationship with many Western countries, you’re entering a whole new territory. And when the satire is taken to the extreme, it would be foolish to expect the recipient to lean back and guffaw.
The same idea can be applied to Evan Goldberg’s “The Interview.” When I first saw the trailer, I found myself laughing at snippets exhibiting the type of comedy that Seth Rogen and James Franco are known for, but I was also a little surprised. A movie about assassinating the leader of another country, let alone one of America’s biggest aggressors? Bold move, Sony. Excellent exploitation of freedom of speech and admirable dedication to the hypothetical, but did we really need to take it that far?
Am I saying that the attack in Paris was justified? Or that North Korea’s threats against thousands of U.S. movie theaters were inevitable? Absolutely not. But I do agree with The New York Times columnist David Brooks’ “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” published Jan. 8, in which he points out our country’s tendency to have a double standard when it comes to satire.
Why did Tina Fey edit out many of the jokes about teenage pregnancy that were written into her Sarah Palin SNL skits? Because she feared some of the jabs intended to point out the irony of Palin’s “family values” would go too far and seriously offend both her family and her supporters. Even one of the media’s most outspoken satirical television broadcasts enacts a boundary now and then to keep their intentions harmless and the audience reaction in check.
I always have and always will agree with Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous words, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But just because we have the right to say something doesn’t mean we necessarily should. If we filter ourselves when we speak within our own country out of respect, we should do the same when we speak outwardly — even if respect isn’t necessarily warranted.
Follow Nicole on Twitter: @NicoleVirzi