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Brown: Should Charlie Hebdo's "courage" be praised?

BY MARCUS VINCENT BROWN | MAY 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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The PEN American Center, an association of prominent literary writers and editors, decided to award the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo for “freedom of expression courage,” but as of now, 145 writers have signed a letter against this decision.

PEN is an organization dedicated to strengthening ties and supporting disenfranchised members of the literary community all over the world. The organization values free expression and literacy as a tool to bridge social or cultural divides.

The decision for the PEN American Center to bestow such an award upon Charlie Hebdo is not surprising after the tragic attack on the magazine staff that left 12 people dead. The attack was carried out by Islamist extremists in response to a series of cartoons satirizing the Islamic prophet Muhammad and garnered global outrage. However, what began as a mere six objectors in the organization, including such notable literary figures as Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi, has now grown to 145 writers.

The primary objection being raised with bestowing Charlie Hebdo this award is not an issue of freedom of expression but rather its use and intention. No one can argue that the retaliation staff members faced for the magazine’s decision to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, an act deemed blasphemous by the faith, was justified or excusable. The global outcry seen during the aftermath of the Jan. 7 attack has proved that, and the display of solidarity with the publication, “Je Suis Charlie,” became inescapable in the period of time following the attack.

However, now that time has passed and the wounds are not as fresh, we see the events that occurred from a perspective separate from the one that immediately follows such a tragedy.  

Charlie Hebdo has brought back a question that is intrinsically tied to the declaration of free expression and its expression. It is easy to say that we should all have freedom of expression when what needs to be expressed is something we want or need to hear, but what happens when the voice of those we don’t want to hear needs protection? Unfortunately, the majority of the time, freedom of expression is not a right. It has become a privilege and one that is in constant of being taken or reduced. Given its propensity to be threatened, the freedom of expression comes with a responsibility.

The ability to disseminate information to the public and speak freely on any institution regardless of size, power, and religious affiliation requires those who wield such power to say something meaningful. It is important to protect the freedom of expression but not simply for the sake of proving that ordinary men can spit on kings and gods. The importance of freedom of expression lies in making it known that, at the appropriate time and for the appropriate reason, we can express our grievances with the world we live in. That said it is just as important to keep in mind the context in which the words and images we publish are being seen. The words and images we put on the page have the power to end lives and start revolutions, and that is not a power that should be used without a purpose.

There will always be a time in which blood will be spilled for saying what the masses do not want to hear, but I’m not entirely sure if proving that one can say what they want should be the sole cause for the loss of human life.


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