Are we all Charlie, really?

The team that produced Charlie Hebdo were exceptionally irreverent, frequently hilarious, and relentless in their attacks on France’s most powerful institutions. But most of all, they were brave.

When Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad which were met with a wave of violence, Charlie not only republished them, but added its own. And when their Paris office was firebombed in 2011, presumably in response to their special “Charia Hebdo” edition, their response was to depict a Muslim man kissing a male cartoonist with the caption “Love is stronger than hate”. They employed bodyguards, but their humour remained as unguarded as ever.

It takes courage to publish a joke that risks making people angry, and perhaps even try to hurt you. I know this because I’ve discovered that at times, I lack it. The Chaser newspaper published a few controversial front covers, and I still remember the feeling of dread after our more provocative editions went to print.

But to respond to the firebombing of your offices by doubling down with more of the material that had provoked it takes bravery that I suspect very few could muster. Very few of us have our principles truly tested – but when Charlie‘s editor Stéphane Charbonnier said he’d rather die standing than live on his knees, he knew it was far from a hypothetical scenario.

The response to the murder of 12 people in Paris has been moving – a candlelit outpouring of shock that will no doubt remind Sydneysiders of the recent floral tribute in Martin Place. In both cases, ordinary citizens have taken to the streets to say that this must not be so, that we will cannot tolerate violence in our midst.

It’s a feeling succinctly expressed by the words “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), which spread across the world on Thursday, online, on placards and everywhere. It’s a way of saying that this is an attack on all of us, and that we all feel outraged by what has happened.

The moral calculus of cartoonists versus men with Kalashnikovs is easy to compute. Of course, what happened was absolutely wrong, and reprehensible, and must be condemned. But as we do so, we should question our own reactions to the humour that we dislike. The fearless free speech to which Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoonists were so resolutely committed is not always so easy to defend.

In recent years, the game of ‘stacks-on-a-comedian’ is a favourite of those who seek to foster controversies online and on air. The likes of Chris Rock, Joan Rivers and David Letterman have all received death threats, and even someone as universally adored as Magda Szubanski experienced widespread vitriol after making a quip about cyclists on The Project.

I’ve experienced a little of this, too. A Sydney shock jock once asked his listeners to call in and supply The Chaser team’s home addresses for broadcast, presumably not so his listeners could hand-deliver flowers. Another prominent Sydney identity invited us to come and tussle with his motorcycle gang, if we thought we were so brave. (We didn’t, since we didn’t.)

I’ve looked at Charlie‘s more outrageous anti-Islam cartoons, and I don’t know that I would have been in favour of publishing some of them – not because they were too outrageous, but because I find them crude rather than funny. But we who say “Je suis Charlie” must defend the right to make those kinds of jokes even when we dislike them. Too often nowadays, people react to questionable material not with the indifference it might well deserve, but with fury.

An audience’s recourse should be limited to not laughing, or switching off, or perhaps even walking out. If comedians and cartoonists keep producing jokes that don’t make enough people laugh, they won’t be in the industry for long. And as any comic will tell you, few things can hurt a joke writer more than a stony response. Sadly, as we saw this week, violence is one of the things that can.

If we are all Charlie today, then we should remember Charlie when humour inspires anger and outrage tomorrow. No matter how much we might dislike a joke, it’s never acceptable to answer one with threats, or harassment, or violence. Charlie Hebdo‘s editors were so brave that they persevered, because to do otherwise in the face of intimidation was utterly unacceptable to them. It should be unacceptable to all of us.

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