Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to controversy. and that’s putting it lightly. The French magazine pushes boundaries weekly, and so much so on occasion that it causes “uproar” and “disgust”.
Both have been used to describe the publication’s recent work (and its impact) – a cartoon that asks what Aylan Kurdi would have become had he had the chance to grow up. The photo of the boy’s body, washed up on Turkish shores, made front pages around the world last year. Charlie Hebdo satirized it then and, referencing the sexual assaults that happened in Germany on New Year’s Eve, had a point to make about it now.
The cartoon depicts two pig-snouted men chasing two screaming German women. The caption states Kurdi would have become a German ass-groper. The real attacks in Cologne have largely been blamed on foreigners. And to the upset of many, there are a lot of “foreigners” migrating to Europe these days.
CBC and Time reported on how outraged social media was; the Queen of Jordan has commissioned a cartoon to be drawn showing Kurdi as a “successful member of society”. The Guardian wrote about how Ronald Reagan tried to use Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A’ as a campaign anthem. (The song is meant as an attack on the “hollow jingoism that wages foreign wars”.)
In satire we see what we want to see. We see it through the lens of our experiences and if the lens is too cloudy, we miss the point altogether. If it’s too edgy, the point gets cut up in our outrage. Satire has the power to be both the mirror and the little voice in our head: it can reflect ourselves back at us with some unavoidable nudging and goading about how things indeed looked different in your head.
Whether it’s the work, the audience or both, the cartoon failed to do that. There’s always the trade-off between producing “art” (with the power of introducing a new concept or idea) and “art people will like” (which gets a more digestible version of that message out). It’s a challenge to do both. Add finding the line between satire that pushes us, uncomfortably, to a new understanding, and satire that pushes us right over the edge because it’s sensational and tasteless and crass.
I think it’s safe to say that Charlie’s cartoon is meant to contrast the world’s outrage when it first learned of three-year-old Aylan with the racism, stereotyping and rhetoric on the streets of Europe today. Regardless of whether the image goes too far, it still makes a point about “white Europeans” through a caricature of “non-white foreigners”. Where is the cartoon of the former, that replaces human features for snouts, hooves, fangs or drool to represent the baseness of stereotyping and racism? What was published may go too far, but it’s still within the same paradigm. The frame is the same. The perspective is old. And instead of seeing an “uproar” that demands a change in racist attitudes, people were outraged because the cartoon is simply no way to treat a poor foreigner…
The “butt” of the sartorial joke may have been meant for those who stereotype migrants, but foreigners instead ended up as collateral damage at the expense of a point that got stolen amid misdirected controversy.
Once again, social media has proven that we’re all just as angry, resentful and racist as we were before. The only difference is we treat that as though it’s news, the fact that technology gives each and everyone of us a platform to say whatever we want to say. Just because we bandwagon and all bunch up like cows about it, shouldn’t make anything any of us have to say – especially if it’s angry, resentful and racist – newsworthy.
Allow me to explain: in preschool, one day, a holographic box magically appeared on the classroom floor. If you looked at it from the right, there was a skull, and if you moved to look at it from the left, the skull disappeared to reappear as a scary holographic skull. It was the talk of the tots, and when our teacher came over to investigate, she proclaimed: “You’re all bunched up like cows!”
Now allow me to explain on point:
A group of armed protestors in Oregon have taken over a U.S. federal building. The group of “militiamen” want the release of two ranchers convicted of arson and the release of federal land and resources to the people. For more, I like this New York Times piece because it has facts, colour, little hype and zero hashtags.
Almost everywhere else, it’s the opposite. In fact, it’s a messy war of words, drunk on the opportunity to champion different agendas, and filled with all kinds of slurs. The word “terrorism” keeps getting thrown at the situation like a never-ending string of virgin Molotov cocktails, achieving nothing save some pretty bad virtual explosions. Police aren’t storming the building, the president hasn’t declared #OregonUnderAttack. And from what I’ve read, anyone remotely near the actual protest is mostly annoyed, not terrorized. Whether this can be defined as a terrorist attack on the U.S. government is, contextually, a pretty weak argument, too.
We have #YallQaeda (al Qaeda) waging #YeeHawd (jihad), #YokelHaram (Nigeria’s Boko Haram) and #VanillaISIS as some super fun and sarcastic hashtags on Twitter. Because when we cry terror at the big bad western wolves and everyone stops listening, we can conveniently import and appropriate the real-life terrors of the “third world” for our own amusement. Like I said, really fun.
There’s how this is about #whiteprivilege, because the “right” (or perhaps more accurately, the ability) of a group of armed black citizens to pull off this stunt is, many claim, non-existent. This is probably true, and it’s part of a larger discussion about how a section of society is labelling these guys “patriots” (one man’s freedom fighter is, after all, another man’s terrorist). It’s also about how government and media have responded. It is very clear that America’s history, founding and strong racial divides need to be properly addressed and discussed. It’s no one’s right, no one’s “privilege” however, to storm a building or host an armed protest. And while everything does tend to be about race, it isn’t always just about race.
Which brings us to a final theme: that this whole situation is really a first-class citizen fight over illegal land, seized many years ago from the continent’s original habitants.
“Only in America,” right? Wrong. Maybe it’s because of who owns the world’s media organizations, or the distractive power of trending hashtags, or simply that this is what we really care about, but few are mocking this “attack on Oregon” in its entirety – the event, the response, the coverage, the opinions – as something not worth the air time it’s gotten, and as something worth dismissing entirely.
Yes, it’s sort of a crazy story. But it’s quite possible we care more because it’s homegrown American drama (they do make great TV) with entertainment value and familiar, relatable characters. There are peripheral issues attached to this that are important, but not really important to this story. In fact, they deserve to stand alone.
And as important as they are, they maybe aren’t quite as important as the widespread life-and-death issues posed by #ChocolateISIS. (Okay, I’m going straight to hell. Which incidentally is now a place on earth where the skulls aren’t holographic. So let’s get back to some of the bigger, pressing, humanitarian issues of our time.)
‘Over 1 million refugees, migrants enter Europe in 2015’; ‘SpaceX rocket makes historic flight’; ‘Ebola effects linger’; ‘Middle East unprepared for climate change’. CBC’s The National has reported some important stories recently (although that last headline is a bit of a no-brainer).
The above four clips have an average airtime that runs just under three minutes.
And then, there’s this piece: a 10-minute “behind-the-scenes look at the making of WestJet’s latest Christmas ad – an ambitious, do-good, feel-good production that the airline hopes will be its next holiday hit.” When delivered in a classic CBC reporter tone, it almost sounds like a real story.
You can wrap it up however you want – in this case, a look at emotional advertising – but at the end of the news hour, Canada’s only public, national current affairs program handed WestJet a free, feel-good promo that money could buy, but not without devaluing the CBC’s integrity as an objective, public interest-driven media outlet.
In this case, the CBC was either really nice or really naughty, but either way, we can rest assured that our tax-dollar funded public broadcaster gave the public relations team at WestJet a very Merry Christmas.
As Mike Mills of studio m, the ad agency behind WestJet’s holiday campaign, put it in the video: “if you can get someone to advertise for you, it’s a lot more value-driven than paying a broadcaster a lot of money to run it for you.”
In a sort of meta-ironic twist of fate, it looks like CBC bought in to the emotional advertising it was trying to cover, unknowingly producing the very value-driven non-ad ad that was discussed in the video.
But I guess that’s okay. Who wants educational content all the time anyway? We all understand everything we choose to understand, and if we talk about Syria too much, how would we ever be able to forget about it? Plus, it’s the holidays. And nothing disrupts peaceful relaxation quite like a regular reminder that peace and relaxation are luxuries enjoyed only by a minority of the world.
So thank you, CBC, for telling me about how a publicly traded company and its ad team buy brand loyalty one miracle at a time with a sleek campaign that has now been going on for years. That sure wasn’t journalism, but boy was it entertaining.
How spiritual and compassionate we’ve become, with the 140-character prayers we send out to the human universe, the one we can’t imagine expanding or contracting or crumbling to change. There’s no ‘right’ way to pray of course, anyone can do it. We don’t need to understand what it is we pray for, why we feel compelled to pray or whether god does in fact read Twitter.
So we #pray.
To each other, to victims, to Paris and to France. But even with the best intentions, the flickring candles of these online vigils seem dim the fourth, fifth, twentieth time around. It’s less prayer and more water cooler talk with some skewed religious bent; Remembrance Day poppies that warp to the dominant cares of our time. It’s Charlie Hebdo, now it’s the Paris attacks. And today, in the wake of some pointed remarks that Beirut was also bombed Friday, and that Syria’s death toll has reached 250,000 thousand, we’re praying for everything: Lebanon, Japan, Baghdad, Gaza, Honduras, Mexico.
There is a pattern emerging when ‘Third World’ events happen in the ‘First World’. We pray, collectively. We pour all of our feelings into tweets, posts, likes and shares. And now, in its newer iterations, the pattern quietly includes those who point out that acts of violence and barbarism happen all day long, every day, in places that don’t get hashtags, with victims nobody #prays for.
One recent post responds with the idea that everybody should pray for everybody. Setting race and religion aside, that humanity is where our compassion and prayers should both begin and end. (More critically, this piece by Hamid Dabashi brilliantly questions why acts against humanity only apply to certain humans.)
It’s nice to pray for everybody, but doesn’t it feel cheap and empty if you don’t know why you’re praying? Especially when the world’s response to those prayers quickly turns to war, racism, hate, vengeance, coldness. Will we pray for those who innocently get caught in the response to these attacks? The covered women viciously attacked by the uneducated and belligerent? The Muslim families dining at a local cafe who become “collateral” in the Western war for some higher purpose?
It’s nice to pray for everybody, but that’s not how we see the world. There is no ‘everybody praying for everybody’. There are Parisians mourning Parisians, and Arab artists contributing painted prayers, and headlines warning why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions that a Syrian passport was found nearby. These hashtag movements fuel themselves until the fires burns out and we all move on. They leave behind them the brief realization that in all our connectivity, we’ve forgotten there exist real divides between cultures, races and the way we talk about such things; that there exists a terrifying lack of learning about such things, with almost anything we say or produce online reinforcing or speaking to our underlying biases and norms.
Before Twitter and social media, would the world have cared enough about the Paris attacks to take to the streets in protest? Would we be able to articulate what it is we so fundamentally oppose? Would we write our local government representative, or thoughtfully pen some words about the situation? What about for Iraq, or Syria, or for the refugees fleeing the Middle East?
We live in a world of unprecedented connectivity and technology, and we use it to #pray at night for things we learned about that day. So if I must pray, I pray that changes. I #pray we get mad enough about injustices to have real discussions about them. I #pray our anger, fear and hurt over the worst of humanity translates into more good, more compassion, more understanding and a thirst for knowledge on the part of all of us. I #pray all of us feel affected by what happens to others around the world. That we care enough about all of humanity to regularly keep humanity in our prayers. That we stay informed about our world not when tragedy strikes, and not out of guilt, but out of our responsibility as global citizens. That we care in a world that, at the end of a very long day, is dominated by the collection of our individual humanity.
What do we care about?
What constitutes news, or newsworthiness, in an age where everything is a story, but not everything goes viral?
Lamar Odom’s situation – cocaine and prostitution – is trending on Facebook right now. It’s plastered all over my feed. And after capturing this juxtaposition, when I went back to find the Al Jazeera article, it was gone, replaced with more pressing news and status updates.
It’s not fair, and it’s not nice. But this is how things go, at this point in time. It’s a harmless juxtaposition. In fact it probably serves more good than harm: having two stories so plainly, bluntly, unassumingly placed side by side, can make a pretty powerful point.
I’ve read both stories now, and I can’t say I regret that. It gives me some ground to stand on when I say how disappointing the world is sometimes, that residential schools and the “third-world” deaths of children, who died from emaciation, have got nothing on a big basketball star who was found comatose in a brothel on some sort of sex-and-drugs holiday. I mean, you either get it, or you don’t.
You can click the image to the left for a link to some news. It only links to one of the stories, and I’m sure you can guess which one.
“The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization,” writes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some of the earliest references to those practices date back three and a half millennia. Today, the definition of a refugee and his or her rights are codified in the 1951 Refugee Convention.
A refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Unlike migrants, refugees flee to escape imprisonment, the deprivation of their basic human rights, physical injury, death or torture.
In the conversation around what was briefly called Europe’s refugee crisis – and is now only referred to as our migrant crisis – a pointed distinction has been made between the two.
Again, from the UNHCR: “Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death – or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.”
An intolerable life in the shadows can mean many things. There is the dark shadowy hell of civil war and state brutality. There are also the millions and millions of people who lead starved lives in the shadows of more prosperous economies – lives starved of nutrition, access to education, of culture and democracy and certain basic rights. Millions are imprisoned on the street, are in fact deprived of their basic human rights because of economic and social conditions, and ultimately, face death because of it.
But it’s not those people we want to save. It’s those defined as refugees we feel half-heartedly compelled to save, and mostly because that inconvenient little thing called “international law” tells us to, and because this current refugee crisis is awfully persistent.
While there is a legal and definitional difference between a migrant and a refugee, should there be a humanitarian difference between the two?
As the UK home secretary has put it, (the person responsible for immigration and citizenship throughout the United Kingdom), while countries have a duty to accept refugees, illegal economic migrants “have no right to be here.” But anyone’s “right” to be anywhere is first and foremost determined by birth. No one is any more entitled or deserving of the rights, privileges and opportunities afforded to them by the class, society and country they are born into.
Additionally, when it comes to what migrants and refugees flee, at the end of it all, death is death. Is it important, is it humanitarian, to label, define and separate the slow, painful, economic deaths from the quick, brutal assassinations of people, their rights and their beliefs?
Regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion and political opinion, and regardless of national or social origin, property, birth or other status, everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include:
- The right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law;
- The right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to that country;
- The freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of one’s nationality;
- The right to change one’s nationality;
- The right to own property alone as well as in association with others;
- The right of equal access to public service in one’s country;
- The right to social security;
- Entitlement to realize of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for one’s dignity and the free development of one’s personality;
- The right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment;
- The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services;
- The right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control;
- Everyone has the right to education.
When we carve up the world by borders, nationalities and wealth, we lay claim to the world’s resources and forget the rest of the people we are supposed to share them with. We claim that what’s mine, isn’t yours, and that that’s okay, and that that’s just.
But in the same vein, if we’re all supposed to be born into this world as humanitarian equals, what isn’t yours, can’t really be mine, either.
“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”
Our rights and freedoms may only be limited to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, as well as morality, order, welfare and democracy.
When we carve up the world in borders, and reallocate the world’s resources to accommodate our more favoured borders; when we build on histories of imperialism, colonialism, fear and oppression with little acknowledgement of the past, who is anyone to say that lives of poverty, starvation or struggle aren’t bad enough to seek refuge from, and that those living them are not deserving enough to try?