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Connecting the dots.

Essays about how we communicate and why it matters.

Je Suis Not Quite Sure

Posted on Sunday, January 11, 2015 by Shelley Cowan

At first, I thought Charlie Hebdo was the magazine's editor. As I learned the facts, grasped the horror and listened to the stories I kept returning to conflicting thoughts about terrorism, free speech and the power of pictures and words.

Free speech is indeed the oxygen of humanity. Civilization requires it. Nowhere should people be slaughtered for their words. But even as I tried not to be so literal, something about Je Suis Charlie didn't quite fit for me. 

Then I saw Je Suis Ahmed, the tweet that said, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.” 

It worked because it acknowledged the connection between right and ridicule. 

It’s not enough to stand against terrorists and the poison they represent. Somewhere along the way we have to wrestle with the power of speech. Doing so does not create an equivalence between terrorism and expression.

Powerful speech, whatever its form, does more than generate feeling and strengthen belief. It can also inspire action. For those of us who make a living at it, that's the whole point. 

Satire is prickly speech, meant to remind us of our hypocrisy. Sometimes it inspires acts that strengthen our humanity. But it doesn’t always work that way.

Whatever its intent, humiliating and hurtful speech can inspire acts that break our humanity. Let's at least own the connection. Let’s start there.