On the Pros and Cons of Free Speech

One of the turning-points in the Viet Nam war was Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s iconic black-and-white picture of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running away from a bombed-out village. What made the image more powerful was Kim’s shocking nakedness, the result of having her clothes burned off by South Vietnamese napalm-bomb-dropping aeroplanes.

Children in conflict zones usually trigger strong emotions in us. Whether we have offspring of our own or not, we feel a degree of sympathy towards those who are usually unfortunate victims of war. Last summer the world gasped in unison as the body of Syrian Aylan Kurdi was found on a Turkish beach. All of a sudden the refugee crisis felt more real. This child could have been ours. Lying face down, the calmness of the sea betraying the tragedy-punctuated moment, Aylan became a symbol in the never-ending Syrian saga and the refugee crisis at large.

The ensuing outcry and condemnation of both Assad’s strong-man domestic policy and Europe’s intransigence in the face of humanitarian crisis might come in handy in order to explain the reaction to one of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s recent cartoons.

The drawing depicted Aylan Kurdi as an adult (had he survived) chasing two women. The image was the answer to a question in French: “What would little Alan have grown up to be?” Anyone familiar with the events of New Year in Germany and other European cities will have made the connection.

Two issues arise from Charlie Hebdo’s blunt — and some might say, insensitive — approach. The magazine was targeted by extremists a year ago. Members of its staff were killed in cold blood. Rather than toning its content down it has since then stepped it up one or two notches. The other issue is that in using a now deeply-embedded, much-loved and sympathised-with image like the Aylan Kurdi, the publication has drawn criticism from those who stood up for it twelve months ago. There are people who have quite rightly said that the magazine’s assumption that little Aylan would have inevitably grown up to become a brute plays into the hands of the far-right. There are others who see the cartoon as a self-mocking exercise, rather than targeting Aylan, it is aiming its barrel at us. One minute we feel sorry for a toddler washed up on the beach, the next we are asking refugees to part with their belongings before they come in.

I say that the latter approach is a tad risky. You need subtlety to pull off a trick like that and in my opinion the drawing lacks it. Had Aylan-the-groper been painted inside a speech bubble with a small arrow pointing at a bigot, then the message would have been less murky.

Could the same have happened to Kim Phuc? I doubt it. I cannot imagine a cartoon depicting nine-year-old Kim as a prostitute in adulthood or similar. It could be that 1972, when the photo was taken, was a time when news lacked the immediacy they have now. Perhaps there was less cruelty, even in satirical publications.

I admit to not finding much to laugh about in the current refugee crisis. It could be then that Charlie Hebdo’s attempt to provide a light-hearted touch to the debate should be welcome. The danger is that instead of sending up ignorant bigots, it is giving them a soap box.

When it comes to freedom of speech, I am usually on the side of those who defend it at all costs. But (important “but”), sometimes I would rather we, adults, exercised caution more and focused on the long-term vision instead of the short-term gain. Are a few extra laughs worth someone else’s tears for the next decades?

It is not an easy question to answer and it is ultimately down to the individual to address. But it would be less complicated if sometimes, only sometimes, you just put a speech bubble with a small arrow pointing at a bigot.

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