Neil Gaiman’s outspoken advocacy for free expression is well known, so we reached out to Gaiman to comment on the Charlie Hebdo attack, and he expanded upon a tweet he sent shortly after learning about the attack:
“As I tweeted on learning about it: How important are free speech and satire? Important enough that people will murder others to silence the kind of speech they don’t like.”
Gaiman adds, “It’s too easy to think that freedom of speech is an abstract thing. But the freedom to mock, to argue, to disagree, these are important enough that their opponents will do whatever they can to quash them, and that includes murder.”
In light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, some might ask why the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo took the risks they did in addressing Islamic extremism and religious fundamentalism. Why should we care about or defend their right to do so? Gaiman’s essay, “Why defend freedom of icky speech?” started out as a response to a query regarding the Christopher Handley case. The essay responded to a question about why comics a few people find indefensible should be protected as free speech. Gaiman writes:
You ask, What makes it worth defending? and the only answer I can give is this: Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you’re going to have to stand up for stuff you don’t believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don’t, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person’s obscenity is another person’s art.
Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.
Gunmen came for Charlie Hebdo, and 12 people died as a result. These gunmen didn’t like the “stuff” that Charlie Hebdo published, so they tried to silence the magazine for exercising nothing more than their freedom of expression. Have we already lost? Only if we let their actions silence our defense of free expression, whether it’s stuff we like or not.