The editorial cartoons that incited the January 7 attack by Islamist extremists on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo portrayed the prophet Muhammad in an extremely unflattering light — the faithful would call it blasphemy, though for a lot of American writers, “offensive” is the key word. When PEN announced its decision to honor Charlie Hebdo with the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at tonight’s annual gala, six writers who had previously agreed to host tables at the event noisily withdrew.
Francine Prose and Michael Ondaatje were the first to jump ship, followed by Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi, and Peter Carey. The list of writers who have signed a petition protesting the award has grown to more than 200 names.
The anti–Charlie Hebdo crowd, while making clear that they deplore the attack that killed twelve staffers, object to the ostensibly racist and inflammatory nature of the magazine’s cartoons. The general idea that keeps cropping up in their explanations is that the cartoons make them uncomfortable.
Somehow, comfort — or at least the security of not feeling offended — has become the desirable state among some of our major writers. If that’s not depressing, what is?
There’s something else: Few people have pointed out the irony of a bunch of writers’ doing the equivalent of reviewing a book just by looking at the pictures. But finally, at a panel today hosted by the PEN American Center and NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Charlie Hebdo‘s recently appointed editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, and its film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret — in town to accept the award this evening — came right out and said it: Charlie Hebdo isn’t a magazine of cartoons, it’s a satirical magazine with actual text. What they didn’t add is that most Americans — including plenty of the PEN protesters — either can’t read or haven’t bothered to read that text, not to mention that they’re probably unschooled in the intricacies of French domestic politics that inform both cartoons and text anyway. Thoret said, plainly, that the cartoons are “the main issue — the cover, especially. It’s just a one-page magazine,” he said, implying that as far as most of the world thinks, it may as well be.
In fact, the PEN dissenters would have been tragically disappointed by the levelheaded and rational nature of the NYU panel. Moderator Maggie Donaldson noted that the disgruntled PEN types were invited — they sent an ambiguously worded statement declining, saying that they had no desire to detract from the Charlie Hebdo staffers’ moment. Ed Berenson, director of NYU’s Institute of French Studies, opened the panel with a breezy, brainy historical survey (complete with NSFW visual aids from the mid-eighteenth century) of satirical humor in France, noting that there’s no real American equivalent. (South Park and The Book of Mormon come close, he said, though in the end they show a reverence for religious beliefs that French satire does not.)
PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel made the case, eloquently, that whether or not we feel at ease with Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons — she herself characterized some of them as “unsavory” — the attack represents a major “threat to the space for speech,” the sort of thing writers of all stripes need to defend. She was also adamant that PEN does not consider the cartoons to be hate speech.
And both Biard and Thoret stressed that while human beings are drawn to images, we don’t always do the interpretative work of understanding them. “We live in a world of images,” Biard said. “A child sees images before he sees words. He can’t read those images. We’re not educated to read all the images around us.” Which is why the point of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is lost when you don’t bother to consider — ahem — the accompanying text.
As Nossel pointed out, the Charlie Hebdo stance (and that of its cartoons) is always against those who abuse power, whether they’re unreasonable governments or religious fundamentalists. Nossel and PEN president Andrew Solomon, in a New York Times op-ed that ran this past weekend, noted that according to Le Monde, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers from 2005 to 2015, only seven fixated on Islam. Ten skewered multiple religions. “Many more,” they wrote, “mocked Christianity and the racism of the French right.”
During the panel, Thoret stressed something else that you’d think would be obvious: The point of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is to “make you think harder. You have to be a little more intelligent after the cartoon than before.” That’s the value of an image that makes you think twice. Sometimes once just isn’t enough.