Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 8, 2015

A Few Notes On Yesterday's Charlie Hebdo Coverage

I made a few choices yesterday in covering the Charlie Hebdo killings that may be worth some brief commentary the day after.

The first was that I deliberately chose more general imagery for the Rest In Peace posts corresponding to Cabu, Charb, Philippe Honore, Tignous and Georges Wolinksi. There are a thousand ways each of us can be portrayed in snapshot fashion upon our deaths and in this case I wanted to emphasize that they were all working cartoonists. I received about a half-dozen e-mails from North American cartoonists who took those posts that way, for which I'm grateful.

The second was I used a provocative, ugly image that employs dehumanizing racial caricature as my Twitter avatar yesterday. I understand this was likely distasteful if not upsetting for some of you. I felt in that moment that it was important for me to show my sympathy for the murdered authors and staffers of Charlie Hebdo as they existed, not as I might have ideally hoped they would so I could conduct myself on the Internet yesterday. I didn't want to show this by connecting myself to some cleaned-up, made-up, idealized, super-champion version of the magazine. I didn't want to show this through a cold abstraction in language. So I picked one of the images that removed from all context upset me, because at the moment when murder is proposed by example as a response to the expression of an idea, I wanted to embrace the human and difficult and messy aspects of expression. I feel that the principle of free speech is an important achievement for civilization in great part because so much free speech brings with it elements of harm and ugliness in addition to its potential for bravery and truth and insight.

I realize that's probably a terrible, mock-worthy reason for a lot of you -- and maybe it will be for me, when I think about it. That's where I was yesterday morning.

(And while it wasn't part of my decision-making process, that snap choice yesterday does fall into two areas this site occasionally talks about, my belief that the employment of art isn't an automatic endorsement of art at its most literal and my belief that intent does have an impact on how I process imagery. Again, I realize others disagree.)

The third thing is that I tweeted my wish for a slow-down on wider analysis and using the events as a cross-comparative and jumping-off point until we know more and so that the murders themselves could be more fully processed. That one might have been wrong to make an issue of. Really, it's just me. I read so many grand, sweeping and conclusive arguments on such a range of issues yesterday and the autopsies haven't been done yet. I don't process information that quickly. I don't process murder that quickly. And what I'm afraid of is that death on many levels may be a foreign or walled-off experience for a lot of people who live inside their own heads, and for those that might be younger, that we move past it with a nod. I get wanting to abstract someone's murder into a quick "of course no one should be killed for what they say" and then get onto the issues that concern you most. I just wonder if that gives murder its due.

Taking someone's life because they expressed an idea or were in proximity to the expression of an idea someone finds objectionable is an astonishing thing. Murder is an astonishing thing. As many friends that I have in the comics world that speak so eloquently on being affirmed in one's identity or how one expresses oneself, let me suggest that murder is someone deciding the exact opposite of those things for you. Every possibility of you is now denied. When death comes upon you suddenly, my experience is you become acutely aware of what is being taken away. Seeing your dog? You don't get to do that anymore. Making art? You're done making art. That blissful five minutes just sitting on your coach getting your head together? Gone. Every possible thing you can express in term of wanting to do it, you don't get to do now. Reading a big stack of comics from six months before you started reading those particular titles? Never again. Helping your Mom out with her computer even though it drives you nuts? She won't be able to ask you to do that anymore and your absence will be a chasm in her heart. Loving and being loved in return? You're separated from at least your earthly conception of it and in many world views that's over, too. I felt this yesterday for the people where this decision was made for them and even in a different way for the one of those apparently three lost souls who lost his life acting out on principles and ideas and values that I don't understand at all and wonder how he came to them. Murder deserves a period.

So while it may be childish and it's not exactly an internet-innoculated argument -- I sort of expect to be severely criticized for this, and that's fine -- that's where my head was when I suggested we maybe slow down and give this a chance to settle in and then go on. Or go back, if you've been lucky enough to fight on these fronts before now. By act and intent, I'm all for discussion of things like the elements of free speech and the responsibilities of satire and how shitty France's racial and cultural politics can be and how oafish and mean some of that satire maybe was in Charlie Hebdo on this and other issues and the horrific, grinding world circumstances that provides some of us with extraordinary privilege and some of us with far less. My site is yours for the expression of your opinions on these matters and more. But the last 24 hours I needed to give the principle of free speech against the cold backdrop of murder its due and my full attention, at least before I could re-engage.

And all of this is so very little about what I do or what I say or my feelings and attitudes towards it. Please chalk up the ridiculous size of this piece to my inarticulate way of expressing myself at times.

My fear is that by this time tomorrow we're going to be expected to talk about something else entirely.
posted 8:50 am PST | Permalink

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