Last week, I reacted—we all reacted—to the attack that occurred in Paris. I waited a few days because I didn’t want to react right away. I am American, not French. And I was raised Catholic, not Muslim or Jewish. I have very little deep knowledge about the historical details of conflict between Muslims and Jews, and I especially have very little deep knowledge about the history of Musilms and Jews in France. Nor am I what anyone with any power would consider to be an “influencer”. So what place do I have in, and what value could I possibly bring to the discussion? I didn’t think it right to follow the crowd and come out so quickly saying the words everyone has been saying, Je suis Charlie, without further consideration. But as an artist I understood very well, and still understand, the superficial implications of this type of attack. Three days later I published my own personal reaction, and it came from the view of an art director and designer. Now that I know more, have seen more and have had more time to sit with all of the other numerous reactions that have since emerged, I have more to add. And I want to talk about the media.
The media is both a wonderful and terrible thing. When journalism is real and focused on truth seeking that is when the media shines. On the other hand, when the media is focused on advancing a political agenda above all else, that is when the media becomes a monster. Over the past month-and-a-half, from tragedy in my home city in December to this tragedy in Paris, I’ve seen the media be and do all of these, and it has affected me.
It is clear that the Charlie Hebdo attack will have many ramifications. Probably most of which will prove to be upsetting, most likely regressive to society and social justice. Some Global players with power will want to capitalize on the tragedy and the media will play a role in their efforts.
I think, to get to the core of what I really want to discuss, it’s necessary to focus my thoughts on the outcome I always hope for when it comes to government and society, and the thing I most fear.
So what do I, personally, want?
In design, User Experience has become the next big thing. It’s all about design teams, not individual experts; and it’s all about the user—how can we best make the overall experience a good one for the user. As designers, we no longer lean toward thinking selfishly of how we want our final piece to be. Instead, we are most concerned with our audience, how they will react to what we’re creating and how they will use it. We think of them first, and we work together collaboratively in teams of experts to get to the outcome that will work best for the most people. So, then, this helps me to explain pretty clearly what I want from our government. It should first serve the people, not itself and not corporations. Our elected officials should put their noses to the grindstone to uncover and implement solutions that will work the best for and help the most people, not with their own gains in mind.
I think most of us can agree on this. The way we think the government should go about it is where we tend to differ in opinion.
What do I most fear?
That’s an easy question to answer because it’s what we all fear: a loss of freedom. But to me, even as an American, freedom doesn’t equate to pure, unbridled liberty for an elite few to industrialize the world and capitalize on Her resources. Or for the public to mindlessly consume until there is nothing natural left to consume. Or to take the arms we have the right to bear and kill each other senselessly with them. Freedom to me contains some moderation, respect and thought for our fellow men and women, and all living creatures.
If what we fear the most is a loss of freedom, then what we fear essentially is a totalitarian state being imposed on us. To some, gun control is equal to totalitarian imposition. To others, business regulation is equal to totalitarian imposition. Some see the abolition of unions as totalitarian imposition. Some view the separation of church and state as totalitarian imposition. And others see racial profiling or strict abortion laws as totalitarian imposition. My point is, our personal beliefs and the way we view freedom varies, and because of this we have great divides in society.
You can't force someone to see things your way. You can't make them understand your point of view. You can try to explain, or yell and argue, or you can threaten violence if others won’t listen. Free will even gives you the power to make a choice to harm others if they won’t agree with you. Too many of us forget the fundamental fact that sheer force will only reap fear, not understanding, and we let anger get the better of us. When the media is a monster, it uses this to divide us further.
I spent some time thinking about free speech and what that means to me. How and where do you draw the line? An experience from my past best sums it up:
In 2004 a radical white supremacist group was able to get a permit to hold a rally in Valley Forge National Park. I lived nearby at the time, and along with many other locals, was furious, hurt and offended. People petitioned to stop this group from rallying, and were told that because the group’s right to rally was protected by the First Amendment, it would be allowed. And on September 25, 2004 the National Socialist Movement, including people representing various organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations gathered in the park in an attempt to “unify the white race”.
But the National Socialist Movement was not the only group to gather on that day. People came from all over the country to protest—to fight back at the group’s hate. Protesters countered across the street. A mile away, another group countered with a Rally for Social Justice. No one was gunned down. Both rallies and protests were largely peaceful and lawful.
That, to me, is free speech in a nutshell. That is how it is meant to work.
So I am, in part, Charlie Hebdo. If one group says, writes or draws something that I don’t like I have two choices. I can react like a dictator and silence them by shooting them. Or I can open my mouth and speak over what they’ve said, pick up my pen and write or draw over what they’ve written. I choose the latter. And this is essentially how the media works. It’s why we fight censorship. We want all voices to have the opportunity to be heard. Sometimes that’s hard because what those voices have to say may be racist, hurtful, or damaging. But to silence one group would leave an opening to start silencing others. I understand all of this. That my right to publish these thoughts right here means someone with opposing views, even racist, sexist or homophobic views, also has the same right to publish theirs elsewhere. It's difficult. But I understand how that works. And if I find I don't have the strength to counter, I just choose to not tune in.
The biggest problem for me comes when some of the mainstream media seizes on our fear after a tragic event and uses it to sway us to a political position that we may not have otherwise agreed with. This is a powerful method of control, and though we’d like to think we don’t have that kind of society—after all, we’re not a totalitarian state—large, powerful privately owned media companies are more than capable of insidiously swaying public opinion by spreading disinformation, usually because they may have a vested interest in promoting that view. It’s easy to spin an article to make the point you want to make by including half-truths. Push the right buttons with the public and you’ll get everyone tapping into their emotional rather than rational responses. That is how tides turn and waves are born.
This is all just meant as food for thought. The best thing that I can think to say, for myself and for everyone else who shares similar feelings and concerns, is for each of us to keep picking up our pens and writing or drawing away. Uncover disinformation and counter it with the honest truth, whether you do it very seriously or with satire, with words or with art. Stop engaging when we’re in an emotional place, and wait until we’re able to fully hear other viewpoints and react from a place of reason.
I think that we in the West who value democracy probably are all, in some part, Charlie Hebdo. But I hope that most of us are also smart enough to recognize even subtle racism and attempts to use our fear against us. I hope that we’re smart enough to always consider the source, do research into it and scrutinize when necessary, especially before sharing. And in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., who we remember on Monday, I hope that even as networks like Fox News push the concepts of "no-go zones" and "bombing them all", we’ll do our best as we continue to consume media to prove that no matter what any group throws at us, the media included, we’ll keep our cool. We won’t let our fear control us.