Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness

047 (2)

First of all, beyond any intellectual ball-kicking, my heartfelt sympathies go to the families and friends of this week’s outrage in Paris where 11 people were shot dead for publishing cartoons, or in the case of the caretaker and visitors, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the chaos spread, the fatalities rose to 17, with many others wounded and traumatized. Indeed the whole nation is in shock and mourning, and the ripples of this latest terrorist atrocity is being felt around the world. Today’s inspiring mass rally (a heartening show of solidarity amongst many world leaders and many, many citizens) in Paris is the culmination of a tumultuous week which has left France reeling, yet defiant, and a corresponding outpouring of sympathy and camaraderie from across the globe, with even the President of the US stating: ‘Vive La France!’

Charlie Hebdo is a long-running satirical magazine with a tendency towards the more extreme spectrum of topical caricature – Private Eye meets Viz perhaps. Certainly more Gerald Scarfe than the witty captions of Private Eye. The editor, Stephane Charbonnier, (aka ‘Charb’) and many of the magazine’s top cartoonists were ruthlessly targeted and gunned down for publishing images deemed offensive to some who call themselves followers of Islam (though many Muslims have spoken out against the attacks, and indeed two of the victims were Muslims – a police officer and a staff member). Further casualties and fatalities resulted from the tense fallout leading to a double hostage situation – a crisis which the French police force dealt with bravely and impressively. Who would have wanted to have been a French gendarme this week? The two brothers who executed the Hebdo attack did so with military precision and ruthlessness. In the name of Al Quaeda Yemen they did their best to start a war – let’s hope they do not succeed.

Yes, the attack on Hebdo was an attack on free speech. France is a Western democracy, not an Islamic State – people are still allowed to speak their mind. We might not agree with what they staff of Charlie say but we defend their right to say it. In a civilized society if someone causes offence then those offended can engage in a debate at best, at worst, file a law-suit. Only barbarians resort to violence. Let it be said: Violence is the recourse of the stupid. It is very rarely a solution. This goes for all parties concerned. Violence begets violence, and he who lives by the sword die by the sword. There is always another way, and those with intelligence will find it.

Those who are using the attacks to fuel hateful Islamophobia are just as bad as the thugs with guns.

Yet the attack was against writers and artists – and as a writer and artist myself I feel an affinity with the Hebdo staff in that regard at least. I hold my creative freedom as a writer sacrosanct. I encourage my creative writing students to feel the same. When we start self-policing then the Fuckers have won. I am against censorship, but at the same time I believe with creative freedom comes responsibility. The bigger the canvas, the greater the responsibility. We should mindful about what we cast out into the world with our efforts. As a Muslim cartoonist interviewed on Al-Jazeera said this week (a breath of fresh air amidst the xenophobic soundbites), it is easy to create a crude cartoon that causes offence, it is harder to create one that makes people think – that balances the message with an awareness of the impact it might cause. As a moderate Muslim, he finds a middle-ground – negotiating a tricky position with skill – so why can’t the rest of us? We live in a complicated, joined up world. Nothing is in isolation. We have to be aware of the consequences of our actions, of our art. Take some moral responsibility.

However, I do not wish to defend the reprehensible actions of terrorists, or any driven to violence in the name of whatever justification they choose for their thuggery. So, here are a few final points I wish to make:

  • Creative freedom is sacrosanct.

  • With creative freedom comes responsibility.

  • Nothing is beyond criticism.

  • Any organisation or institution lacking a sense of humour (about itself) is extremely dubious.

  • A sense of humour is essential equipment for living on planet Earth.

  • Planet Earth is big enough for everyone’s paradigms but not everyone’s prejudices. Learn to get along. Negotiate the complexity.

  • There are those who are instantly ready to be offended, and those all too ready to resort to violence. Both are mindless kneejerk positions. Those who like to nurture a grievance narrative would do better at channelling their energies into loving life, not hating at the drop of a hat. Do something positive instead. Plant a garden, or go to therapy.

  • Violence is the recourse of barbarians. Get civilized. Use your brain. Prove you’re a human being with intelligence.

  • The causes of radicalization need to be addressed. There needs to be greater equality. The disenfranchised and voiceless will always be a source of extremism until they are given a fairer deal.  Mocking them will only rub salts in the wounds of their sense of anger and injustice. When we deprive people of respect and a voice, they often turn to extremes to be heard.

  • Tolerance and celebration of diversity leads to a more stable society. Inclusiveness begins within your own community. Ostracizing the ‘other’ feeds the cycle of misery and terror. Start a dialogue. Share your stories.
  • Happiness is a warm pen.

What I found heartening about Saturday’s march of sympathy in Paris were the placards which read not simply ‘Je Suis Charlie’, but ‘Je Suis Contre Le Racisme’: I am against Racism. This I think is a more mindful message. Yes, our sympathies are with the family and friends of those killed; but that does not automatically mean we hate all Muslims, only the hateful few who resort to such desperate extremism. They, and those that support them, deserve nothing but our contempt. I hope one day they choose to rejoin the human race; and that we can learn to work out this whole mess together in a civilized manner.

The human spirit is dauntless, and the human imagination limitless, so I believe it is possible:

A blank page is an invitation to change the world.


2 thoughts on “Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness

  1. Chantelle

    A very thoughtful post.

    The really important point that I think you’ve picked up on is the responsibility that comes with the right of free speech. It seems there’s an endemic view in today’s day and age that we can have our rights without acting with any sense of responsibility and that is, to my mind, causing all sorts of catastrophic issues.

    We have the right to write and draw what we wish, but we have a responsibility to do something _useful_ and _meaningful_ with it, not take cheap shots at religious, social and ethnic minorities in order to sell our wares. We have the right to hold whatever religious beliefs we wish, but we have the responsibility to respect people as people and not to harm others just because they hold different beliefs to us.

    There have been many cartoons being released under the Je Suis Charlie hashtag which proclaim the pen is a weapon against violence and the imposition of will through violence (I don’t like to use the term Terror because I believe multiple governments have tainted the word for their own gain and it has become a rallying term for those who would use violence to subdue and attack communities and nations). This is a valid point to be making, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that the pen is not always a noble weapon and has many times caused the sense of division that then leads to atrocities between groups that were once part of the same community.

    I’m afraid I can’t personally agree with “Guns are for guys with small dicks, or women who secretly crave one.” I think there’s something more serious at play here than that sentence encapsulates (I feel it smacks a little of the Victorian idea that ‘real men’ are strong, women and more gracile men are weak but want to be strong like the ‘real men’ – which I know is not a belief you actually hold so I was a little perplexed by the statement). Guns are for people who feel they have the right to take another’s life, and to do so without putting themselves within arm’s reach of their victim’s ability to defend themselves. It’s not a trivial thing – it is a mindset we should all try to scrub from the face of humanity because, in the end, not a single one of us has the right to take away another person’s life.

    Happiness is a warm pen… used responsibly.


  2. lornasmithers

    There was a conversation on my local Interfaith forum about this and as a poet and religious person I’m torn between my belief in freedom of expression and respecting what others believe to be sacrosanct.

    As you say it’s harder to create something that thought provoking than something offensive.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s