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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discussion:

Charlie, Conclusion

with Eleanor Lerman

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[Don] With this issue we close the discussion of l’affaire Charlie. All the positions have been taken. But in a larger sense, the question will never go away; it will always re-emerge in some form.

Speech always has an audience, even if it’s only the speaker himself. The audience may agree with it, shrug with indifference, or disagree to varying extents. The problem arises with the effects, when the response is not speech but action. What is appropriate and what isn’t?

[Eleanor] Agreed, it’s time to let Charlie go; I’m sure some other topic will stir us all up again soon.

I am gratified that we’ve been having a thoughtful, civil discussion about these issues. In some ways, that’s more than PEN has managed to do. Maybe it’s because we’re addressing each other in a science fiction-related forum, where we all understand that there are larger questions about the purpose of life, the mysteries of life — here in our corner of the cosmos and elsewhere — to be considered that go beyond our problems with each other on this one blue planet in terms of religion, ethnicity, and belief.

That said, I have to admit that as a Jew, what always enters into discussions about freedom of speech or belief is simply the right of different groups of human beings to exist. It seems to me that for as long as we’ve had recorded history — meaning, even handprints scratched on cave walls — there have been some of us who think others of us don’t have the same right to live out our lives as best we can, and to think, to believe, as we wish.

Instead, some of us seem to think that we know the mind of God and that he/she/it holds some of us as dear and considers others as a blight upon civilization. And thus, we have the right to impose a Final Solution on “the other,” be they Jews or Cambodians or Christians or Tibetan monks.

The greatest weapon we have against this kind of totalitarianism is laughter and humor. That means we get to make fun of each other, we get to caricature each other, we get to take each other down a notch and then agree to disagree and go home in peace.

When people murder other people because they were offended by humor — however gross or raw that humor is — then, when I was a kid, we would have been slaughtering each other over the cartoons in Mad Magazine.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are often crude and challenging. So what? If God — the God that Jews believe is watching over them, that Muslims revere, that Christians love — can’t take a joke, then we’d all better keep our mouths shut all the time. I think he/she/it has better things to do than worry about a few cartoons.

I live at the beach; I get to walk my dog by the seashore and sleep in a room at night without worrying about people coming to drag me out of bed to my doom. That’s what happened to my European relatives; that’s what’s happening today to men, women and children all over the world.

As I write this, some woman is carrying a dying baby across a burning plain, looking for food and water she won’t find. I hope God is waiting to carry her to some better place, somewhere, where her suffering will be eased and her life valued. But if that God is too busy because he, she or it is worried about some cartoons in a French magazine, then we’re all lost.

But I don’t think we’re lost. I think we — and whoever else is waiting out there in the vast, starry darkness to meet us — must, at heart, mean each other well. At least I hope so. And I, for one, can’t wait to find out. In this life or some other, I’m sure I will.

Thank you for the opportunity to join this discussion; as I’ve said, I usually do leave these literary kerfuffles alone, but this one seemed to rise to a different level, something like class warfare on the part of some writers, so it seemed like a good time to take to the barricades again. And now we can take them down, until the next time.

[Don] Thank you for the observations, Eleanor; they’re very touching. Thanks to you and our other contributors, Bewildering Stories has covered the territory about as well as can be done. I think you can tell PEN and the dissidents that they can get the big picture here in Bewildering Stories and that they can resolve their quarrel and bury the hatchet.

Peacemaking is all the more worthwhile because it isn’t easy. It can be hard enough between individuals in a family, let alone in the same culture. And between cultures, it’s all the harder.

For example, a live TV broadcast from a soccer game in Toronto on May 13 showed several men shouting obscene, sexist slurs at the female reporter. The reaction: four men were immediately banned from events sponsored by Maple Leaf Sports. One of them was fired from a high-paying position for violating his company’s code of conduct.

Were the reactions disproportionate? Some cultures would agree with the men’s behaviour and some would even say they should have killed the reporter. Others will say, “Not my problem” or “Boys will be boys.” In Canada, such acts meet with less tolerance than in some other places: the incident is part of a larger discussion about bullying and, in the context of violence against women, it may even be considered a hate crime. What would be the reaction in the U.S.? In other countries?

The incident has nothing to do with Charlie; no politics or religion is involved. And yet it has everything to do with Charlie: What is a proportionate response to someone who is deliberately or inadvertently offensive? Or, as PEN and its dissidents have shown, to someone with whom we merely happen to disagree on some point?

Courtesy is extended voluntarily as a favour. Attacking someone for who they are is beneath contempt, but all beliefs are open to question. Let this citation suffice, from the Age of Enlightenment:

Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est pas d’éloge flatteur.
Without the freedom to criticize, there can be no praise.
— Beaumarchais, Le Barbier de Séville (1775)

From that perspective, this discussion really began in issue 601, with James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire. And it continued in issue 613 with his Pagans. The conflict between speech and power did not begin there, and it won’t end here. Others confront it again, daily, in many causes.

Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Lerman
and Don Webb

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