Charlie Hebdo and Ethics

For the benefit of those who have been living under rocks, it’s time to talk about Charlie Hebdo and Ethics.

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine. It is a place where controversial cartoons and commentary are unleashed. The magazine prides itself on being irresponsible.


Charlie Hebdo and EthicsIn 2006, a lawsuit was brought against Charlie Hebdo for its works. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a letter to the court, championing France’s tradition of satire.

But then in 2011, the offices of the magazine were firebombed, and their servers were hacked.

And now, in January of 2015, a dozen people were shot to death.

Tragedy and Free Speech

Wrapped up in this obvious tragedy are considerations of free speech. People around the world were outraged, and they took to the streets to protest, yelling, Je Suis Charlie! Or they would hold up signs that said the same. The three-word sentence simply says, “I am Charlie.”

Free speech means that all speech is free, and that includes satiric and uncomfortable speech. Racist screeds are protected, as are cartoons showing world or religious leaders doing God only knows what. And Charlie Hebdo and its cartooning staff certainly seemed to take pride in that as well, at showing the famous and the powerful and the well-known and the worshiped at their worst.


I have to say, though, that the magazine’s actions were more than a little irresponsible. They had seen a history of escalation, and things had already gotten violent. Four years ago. Hence I have to wonder, what were the preparations? And where were the precautions?

Abortion doctors who have seen their colleagues shot sometimes stop performing abortions. Or they will also take sensible precautions and wear bulletproof vests when they go to work in the morning. While living in fear is unpleasant (there’s an understatement), the precaution is an intelligent one. I am not saying that unprotected abortion doctors are shouting out to the world, “Come on and take your best shot!” But a smart precaution isn’t caving. If anything, it’s just being practical. And it is respecting one’s family, too. Yet I don’t see the dozen victims as having done that. Why not? It sure as hell would have made some sense.

This is not me blaming the victims. This is more like – couldn’t something have been done? Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. These people cannot be retroactively saved. But maybe others can.

On Balance

The thing that gets to me is that Charlie Hebdo isn’t Mad Magazine. Hell, it isn’t even Cracked. It feels a lot more like adolescents drawing crude figures and taunting each other. It does not feel clever enough to be satire. Yet people will go out and buy it now, anyway. It’s chic to do so, as seven million copies of the latest issue are sold, for a magazine that normally has a circulation of some 60,000.

Free speech? Hell yeah. Condemn the killer or killers? Of course. Try to ignore the fact that the reactive cartoons in solidarity were considerably more clever than anything Charlie Hebdo ever published.

The video is my class presentation on the subject.