I Applaud the Piss Christ and Charlie Hebdo

There is nothing in the First Amendment to the Constitution about “responsible” free speech. It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” It’s just “free speech,” period. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings  in Paris there has been a call from the people on the left side of our political spectrum for more measured “responsible” free speech. I disagree with this because it is a call to weaken our First Amendment. More broadly, such a move advocates self-censorship.

The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper, purposely pushed the creative envelope to insult and question religion– all religion- as a tool to keep up the fight for a secular France which they fear is eroding due to religious extremism.

Secularism has long been a goal for American progressives. The wall between church and state is a well-respected one in the United States. Every time a religious person, particularly a politically conservative one, floats the idea of instituting prayer in schools or bans some books or pulls artwork out of museums, we rise up in horror and disdain. We angrily reject limits on free speech and art here in the United States and rightfully so. If we censor ourselves we prohibit our mental flow of ideas.

Unfortunately, some on the left aren’t applying this flexibility to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. A few have written that they are all for free speech, but one has to be “responsible” when exercising it.  What does it mean to exercise free speech but be responsible? I have so many questions. Responsible to whom? Where are the rules of responsibility written? What happens to the person who is not responsible? The vagueness of this goal disturbs me.

In 1998, the American artist Andres Serrano created an artwork depicting an image of Jesus Christ submerged in a vat of the artist’s urine. He named it the Piss Christ. To this day progressives applaud the Piss Christ and so do I. Serrano offended many and he received death threats. Newspapers, such as the New York Times, fiercely defended him and his art. No one carried through on the death threats against Serrano and I think that was partly due to the fact that people defended him and his right to create that art. Even conservative Christians in the United States who detested the Piss Christ understood on a deep level that Serrano had a constitutionally protected right to make the artwork and not be censored.

The critics of Charlie Hebdo‘s pushing of the creative envelope seem to be cultivating a cultural critique that has different standards for different groups; be an artist but don’t offend certain religions, speak your mind but don’t go too far. That didn’t apply to Serrano and it certainly isn’t being said of the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have lampooned Jesus Christ numerous times. Serrano and the South Park cartoonists are all alive. However, according to the progressive “Ministry of Responsibility” the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were asking for it.

Progressives didn’t scold Serrano and say that he wouldn’t have received death threats if he just didn’t inflame. They didn’t say he shouldn’t have made the Piss Christ because it might clearly offend a small faction of religious extremists who bomb abortion clinics or protest funerals of gay people. They didn’t project the idea that artists like Serrano who continue to inflame hatred among religious conservatives are asking for trouble. They didn’t tell him to be silent. From what I can see today, progressives aren’t saying that if Raif Badawi hadn’t written his liberal blog in Saudi Arabia he wouldn’t be getting publicly lashed, so why are political progressives who value free speech in other instances calling for free speech to be qualified as the world tries to come to grips with the horrific events that transpired in Paris last week?

Is free speech a human right? Yes, I think so. R. Crumb, the noted counterculture American cartoonist who now lives in France said in a recent interview, “…after [the Charlie Hebdo journalists] got killed, I just had to draw that cartoon, you know, showing the Prophet.”

He had to show it. Solidarity is when you stand side by side and show support in the face of fear.

This is why we fight to maintain freedom of speech and we fight for the artists right to push the envelope. The free flow of ideas is essential to a democracy. The Charlie Hebdo staff had a right to live. They had a right to publish their ideas. Raif Badawi has a right to write a liberal blog and not be publicly lashed. And I have a right to push back on the calls for “responsible” free speech. That responsibility can be a very slippery slope to full on censorship.

Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and more public screenings are upcoming! Jennifer was recently named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project.

To schedule an interview with Jennifer or talk with her about booking her as a speaker, she can be reached at jennifer@feministstories.com.

  • Nice work, Jennifer! I agree. We need to be consistent, a la Pastor Niemoller’s famous lines. It is either free or not.

  • Thia

    Well said!

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