This blog has addressed issues related to violence and its relationship to media communications and visual literacy in contemporary culture on a number of occasions. As media educators – indeed, as citizens – issues related to the freedom that we have to communicate through public media platforms and to the rules and norms associated with how and what we express are at the core of understanding and utilizing media. This week, in France, the world witnessed a horribly violent reprisal directed towards these rights to expression when terrorists murdered a number of people at the Paris headquarters of the weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Writing from America, I would like to add a few additional points that I have not seen satisfactorily or widely expressed and that could be useful in discussions related to these events and issues. First, in order for those outside of France to understand the full impact of this event, it is important to grasp the familiarity that French people have with these cartoonists and writers. A number of those killed (including editor Charb, Wolinski, Cabu, and Tignous) were very important cultural figures who have enjoyed wide recognition and popularity for many years. Among them, the cartoonist Cabu (pen name of Jean Cabut), has been one of the most important practitioners of caricature and political cartooning in France for many decades and whose face is a familiar one in French media.
Cabu even regularly appeared on French television in the 1980’s on the children’s show “Récré A2” with the host Dorothée. For those who understand French or for French classes, here is an excerpt from a circus-themed episode. Incredibly, one of the topics raised is that of censorship! When encouraging young people to send in their own cartoon ideas for original, new conceptions of circus performers – he shares his own, such as one who is able to jump back into “his mother’s stomach” (in this case through the mouth) – he specifically tells young viewers to send in what they think of, “we don’t censor here on this show.” (And Dorothée quickly turns the page on a couple of his racier drawings!) In another available video of more recent vintage, Cabu talks about the theme of “Can one still laugh about anything (or everything)?” In that piece from 2012, he discusses the very issues for which he was assassinated along with his colleagues at Charlie Hebdo; his humanity, intelligence, humility, and convictions are quite apparent throughout this talk.
Before this attack, general opinions in America – expressed in editorials and by leaders – were that the illustrators at Charlie Hebdo had indeed gone a bit too far, and that they should respect the desires of those who say that they should not critique or offend islamic leaders or fundamentalists in this way. Has there been a similar debate in the United States about The Book of Mormon? Are there those who say that many of the scenes of that musical or lyrical content of those songs should not have been produced? They are, after all, highly critical, even quite scatological in lampooning specific religious figures and beliefs and may be deeply offensive to members of certain religious groups. I have not seen anywhere any reference to this cultural comparison used in discussions of the material produced by the creators at Charlie Hebdo. Why is this not the case here in the United States? For educators who teach in a field in which these issues or discussions might be raised — such as Advanced Placement French classes (with the theme “Défis Mondiaux”), international studies, journalism, or others — it is important to use representative cases from a variety of media angles. In French classes, vigorous debates about these matters have been part of advanced level curricula and hotly debated for some time, such as with the interdiction of the wearing of the niqab or burka or similar full-face or -body coverings by women in France and Belgium. These most recent developments add new levels of intensity to important discourse about the roles and challenges of media communicators in our society.
P.S.: I will add to this post a link to a video that was uploaded a short time ago (only about 100 hits so far; I’m guessing it will go up a lot) by a French high schooler who recorded a speech given by a teacher of the Lycée Lavoisier in the school courtyard during a moment of national mourning for those who were murdered on January 7. A very powerful speech and a striking media document. This 5-minute movie concludes with a minute of silence that becomes powerfully visual as well. For those who understand French in particular, this is highly recommended.
P.P.S.: On Friday, November 9, I will add another link to a New York Times article and short film by Jerôme Lambert and Philippe Picard — “Charlie Hebdo Before the Massacre” — that features part of a documentary about the work of Cabu and shows the journalists of Charlie Hebdo at work. To understand the issues of this blog post, this short film is invaluable. It is an astonishingly pertinent document of the creative process in action and the cultural issues inherent to this story.