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Be a pencil, not an eraser

  Courtesy of Takkk via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Takkk via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday the whole world was shaken by the detestable actions of two men in Paris — two men who cared so little for the value of the lives of fellow humans that they would take it upon themselves to end them.

I don’t know much about Charlie Hebdo. And I don’t know enough about Islam. So I’m hardly qualified to comment on Wednesday's attack from any place other than my own personal perspective. My perspective is one of an art director and designer.

I worked in Editorial design for six years out of art school, aiming to climb the ladder. My dream was always to one day become the Art Director of Rolling Stone. My first full-time job out of school was at a family-owned local magazine in the Philadelphia suburbs. From there, I moved to New York City to work for a newsstand dance magazine. And while I was plotting my next upward move, the bottom fell out of the industry. The layoffs seemed to never end. Big titles folded, one after another. Rolling Stone even decreased publication format to a small, average newsstand size. It became clear that if you weren’t already at or near the top of the industry ladder, you weren’t getting there; at least not anytime soon. So I gave up and changed paths. But my heart is still in Editorial. It always will be.

The thing that strikes me so much about Charlie Hebdo is, this wasn’t Hollywood. This wasn’t a multinational media conglomerate. This was the brave, albeit crass, little guy who embraced controversy in the name of free speech. From what I've seen of the publication it reads, to me, like the work of old-school anarchists. The irony of the very elected officials it mercilessly lampooned, including the Pope, adding their voices in remembrance of Charlie Hebdo and condemnation of the attack is the best legacy one who published work like that could hope for. And in a time where a still-failing print publication industry puts out uninspiring issue after uninspiring issue, where the newsstand is awash with airbrushed celebrity faces and bolded blurbs crafted to sell, where alternative weeklies have seen their day, and the public consumes more information on their tablets and social media than anywhere else it’s refreshing to see that someone, somewhere refused to succumb to tiresome marketing tactics, soften or fold. The editors at Charlie Hebdo stood their ground and they kept doing their thing, not just in the midst of a failing industry but amid threats to their lives.

In the 60s in America, George Lois made a name for himself with the covers he created for Esquire magazine. These covers were intelligent, political, they challenged authority and they were creatively controversial. Some, even today, are still parodied. But today you’d be hard-pressed to find an issue of a mainstream magazine like Esquire with a creatively controversial cover. You’d be hard-pressed to find an issue without a sexed-up celebrity on the cover. And you certainly wouldn’t find one with a satirical cartoon featuring the prophet Muhammad on the cover. We've become predictable, even in our controversy. Not because we're afraid of terrorists but because predictable is popular and that's what appeals to the most people, most of the time. A bare-assed Kim Kardashian on a magazine cover might break the internet, but it's hardly inspired and incredibly predictable. Predictable is safe. We've mistakenly come to think that safe sells best.

The funny thing is, up until four days ago, most outside of Paris would never have seen Charlie Hebdo. And likewise, prior to the threat of violence at theaters showing The Interview, most would have chosen to opt out of viewing a film that actually leaves you feeling dumber for having seen it. But thanks to the violence and threats of violence, the world has made a point of paying extra attention to both.

To me, a society without intellectuals, without journalism, without any means to creatively challenge the authority and status quo, and without anyone who cares enough to notice or understand is a closed society. Democracy depends on our right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Joe Randazzo, a former Onion editor, wrote in a recent piece published on msnbc.com:

For those who would trivialize the idea, this was what an actual attack on freedom looks like...

Our society is possibly the freest that humankind has yet produced and that freedom is predicated on one central idea: the right to speech. That right is understood as a natural extension of our very existence. In America, free speech is so important that the men who wrote our Bill of Rights put it first, but followed it up with our right to bear arms... But in this state of widespread social change — probably the most profound in centuries — we need to make sure that the ideal of the second amendment never, ever trumps the power of the first. That brute force never negates ideas.”

I, myself, am agnostic. If there is something out there I don’t believe that any of us can definitively know what or who or if it is. Maybe the Universe, itself, is God. Or maybe all of Humankind is God. I tend to lean toward my own interpretation of the concept of karma and reincarnation; that Humanity is the journey. We learn and we grow with each action, decision and reaction. Sometimes in ways we may not understand until many years (or lifetimes) later. If we try to be mindful and recognize our anger, fear and desire as ego-based and not completely representative of who we really are inside, we are more likely to live life with meaning.

But no matter what ideal you believe in, in the end, valuing life should stand above all else.

I've spent a lifetime learning how to not be afraid — how to find my voice, speak up and speak out. And I hope there comes a day when no one ever needs to feel afraid, and where the universal answer to expressing an idea or opinion through journalism or art is never a threat on human life. Instead, it's nothing more than another, differing idea or opinion worth considering. And most importantly, I hope there comes a day when we're all open-minded enough to concede ill-judged views and shift to better, more-informed views when necessary.

Alyssa YeagerComment