Charlie Hebdo should inspire UT community to debate free speech

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I’m not proud to say that in the over half-dozen times I’ve been to France, I never even noticed Charlie Hebdo. But I think it’s safe to say that Charlie Hebdo was unknown to many other Americans before the tragedy earlier this month. 

Americans’ lack of knowledge was clear when the public outcry, “Je suis Charlie,” seemed to morph into what sounded like “Je suis Charlie?” followed by “Wait, who exactly is Charlie?” The media seemed equally confused. Reports, broadcasts and tweets documented a mixture of assertions about freedom of speech and voices of anger about a lack of sensitivity toward French Muslims. 

Weeks after the event, I’m still struggling to come to a resting point on the issue.  My understanding has reached a frustrating dead end and I feel conflicted and powerless. 

The only solution, I believe, is to shift the debate to an arena where I have some influence. Here at UT, we can all learn from the events at Charlie Hebdo to start building our own brand of satire. We’re in a perfect microcosm for debating free speech, cultural issues and the merits of irreverence, and we have the luxury (and liability) of instant feedback from the campus community. Let’s start the experiment! 

We already have our very own humor publication, the Texas Travesty. These Onion-ites in training have the capability of pushing our buttons for a higher purpose and I think we should let them push a little harder.  

The Travesty is primarily an entertainment and humor paper. Chris Gilman, the Travesty’s editor-in-chief, says the publication is open to covering controversial issues in a tasteful manner. But would our student body be open to this?  

A recent discussion about satire and Charlie Hebdo with my fellow journalism students showed just how divided and sensitive we are. Some were offended by the magazine’s apparent mocking of religion in general, not just Islam. 

“I’ve seen the cartoons of the pope,” said Teresa Mioli, a Latin American studies master’s student and journalist. “That like makes me mad as a Catholic.”

Others vented frustration at how uptight everyone seems lately.  

“People will keep getting offended,” said journalism master’s student Andrea Nedorostova. “That’s something you cannot change.”  

But, Nedorostova says, the blow of pointed commentary can be softened with humor that can appeal to everyone.  

“If they make it really funny and let’s say 90 percent of people laugh at it, I think that’s a success,” she says, especially when international students and people of various ethnicities and backgrounds all get the joke.  

The portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad offended the Travesty’s own illustrator and graphic designer, Hazel O’Neil, who says she doesn’t accept the excuse that Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunity offender.   

These interactions have taught me that students value cultural sensitivity just as much as the ability to have a thick skin. So how do we translate these values into our own campus legacy of satire?  

For starters it should exist. The Travesty does a good job of lightly poking fun at issues, and has rightly avoided attacking “low-hanging fruit,” Gilman said. But they could shape themselves into a respected voice for dissent, or at least irreverence, on major issues that affect the campus community. 

The Travesty already has the will and intelligence to do this. Gilman has said that UT’s Student Government is ripe for satire. He wants to poke fun at how its insular nature may lead to a lack of perspective from student leaders. 

“It’s pretty much predetermined who’s going to run and who’s going to win [in Student Government],” Gilman says.  

We also need to utilize the hundreds of experts on campus to help make our brand of satire intelligent. These experts can push our satirists to be as informed as possible before taking a crack at an issue. We can harness this knowledge to make our satire legacy less about provoking and more about starting a discussion.  

And the discussion certainly wouldn’t be one-sided, with the Travesty holding all the cards. Social media provides readers the opportunity to give instant feedback. This would either help build a thick skin for Travesty writers, or help refine their message. The Travesty’s increasing presence over the past two years is evidence that it’s prepared to engage with the campus community, but its meager record of complaints, says Gilman, may mean it’s not challenging readers enough. 

Lately, it feels like we’re in an era of apathy. Perhaps our devices are satiating our emotional needs, but that can’t last forever. Now is the perfect time to shake things up and grab students’ attention. Satire is the perfect medium to bring difficult issues to the fore without boring students or scaring them away. 

Most of us will never fully relate to the French experience after Charlie Hebdo. All we can do is create our own legacy of satire at UT to know what it’s like to balance free speech with the sensitivities of marginalized groups. We can’t be afraid to offend, but let’s let our offenses serve the highest purpose possible. 

Covington is a journalism graduate student from Laguna Niguel, California.