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Je Suis ...

Moments after the news of Charlie Hebdo hit my screen, I felt the need to do something. #JeSuisCharlie was already trending and writers and artists and free-thinkers I admired and respected were posting photos of broken pencils ... which moved me deeply and made me want to rise up with all the other pencils and sharpen.

I retweeted a picture of pens in a row. "Weapons of Mass Creation," it read, and I sat down to think about what that truly meant.

Weapons of mass creation #JeSuisCharlie #freedomofexpression — Martina Leingruber (@leingruber) January 7, 2015

What do we create with our words? With our pictures? With our photographs? What do we build with our voices? Who do we rally behind? Antagonize? Support? Stand with? Listen to? Epitomize? For those of us who spend the bulk of our lives creating, who is our audience? And why?

The more I though of my retweet, the more I realized how much more thinking I had to do before I hashtagged anything.

My heart was broken for those viciously massacred. It still is. I mourned for Paris then and I mourn for Paris now. I also mourn for Nigeria and our all-too-violent world. I abhor violence of any kind and believe with my whole heart in peaceful protest, in joining hands and marching for peace, for everywhere and everyone. I believe in creative freedom and a world without censors. I believe that creative expression is a basic human need, that storytelling is our greatest asset as a species.

I must show my solidarity to a magazine of free-thinkers because I am a free-thinker, too. Because without free speech I am nothing. We, as humans, are nothing.

And yet, without free thought, we are even less.

Earlier this week, Saladin Ahmed wrote the following:

"The fact is, we self-censor and select the targets of our satire based on our worldviews — and those worldviews are influenced profoundly by being male or female, black or white, American or Iraqi, Muslim or Christian. Our identities and lived experiences have everything to do with the offenses we decide need mocking, and the targets that we select."

"The question for writers and artists, then, is not whether we ought to limit ourselves, but how we already limit ourselves. In a field dominated by privileged voices, it's not enough to say, "Mock everyone!" In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful. And in the context of brutal inequality, it is worth at least asking what pre-existing injuries we are adding our insults to."

"The belief that satire is a courageous art beholden to no one is intoxicating. But satire might be better served by an honest reckoning of whose voices we hear and don't hear, of who we mock and who we don't, and why."

Why don't I feel like one of the good guys? Why do I, instead feel like part of the problem? From where I stand, I see one way. And from where others stand, they see something else. And when we all march together in a line in the same direction, what does that mean? What does it mean when we ignore atrocities elsewhere without calling ourselves Nigeria, for example (#naijanimi), and when we ignore that we, the so-called "good guys," are seen as terrorists in many parts of the world?

Why don't I feel like one of the good guys? Why do I, instead feel like part of the problem? From where I stand, I see one way. And from where others stand, they see something else.

But we're the good guys!

We don't have time to really think about it. We don't want to have the time. Nuance complicates everything. Nuance makes superheroes less heroic and humanizes villains. Nuance forces us to look in our cultural mirrors and recognize that nobody is innocent.


We don't have time to ask ourselves these questions and we refuse to look in the mirror. Instead we follow the mob. We take the signs we are handed and we go into battle. That is how wars have always been fought and won.

But at what cost? And who is the general? Who are we fighting? And why do they want to fight us? The answers will never be clear to us because we are over here. We are in our homes, in our cities, in our skin, in our own experiences. Scott Long writes on his blog, A Paper Bird:

"We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence.

"Shhhh. Don't ask questions. Here's a quote from Voltaire that isn't really Voltaire. ["I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."] Here. ... take it. It's good ... and don't ask questions."

But ...


I don't care that Voltaire didn't actually say this, it's still a noble sentiment. But it's also woefully false. Are we really willing to fight to the death to protect a person's right to use racial slurs and threaten rape in comments sections? I'm not. I do not want to fight to the death so that people, friends, even strangers, may be shamed and/or threatened. Do you?

Words have the power to change minds and turn hearts and kill spirits.

Growing up, the kids on the playground used to say, "It's a free country!" in order to defend their words, their actions, regardless of how cruel they were.

"I can say whatever I want to say to you, OK? It's a free country."

And they were right. But they were also completely wrong.

Nothing is free. Everything comes with and at a cost. If not to me or you, to someone.

The cold never bothered me anyway.

Censorship is not for governments or world leaders. It is not something we should be "bullied into doing." It is, however, something we must be mindful of when it comes to our OWN words and phrases. Knowing how and why and when to self-censor is crucial. It isn't "cowardice" to censor what we know will sting another—it's empathy.

In the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner (who wrote a must-read, in my opinion):

"The spiritual consequences are all around us: people despairing of ever being understood by others, growing distrustful of others, and feeling that no one really can be trusted. A collective and global emotional depression makes so many people withdraw into themselves, sometimes in relatively harmless ways, but often in ways that undermine the possibility of any human community emerging that would be capable of dealing with the social and environmental problems that face the human race, thereby giving freedom for the global corporations and their hired guns in the media and politics to continue to run the world for their own narrow interests and without regard to the well-being of other people or the environment."

"The media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.

"None of this is reason to stop mourning the horrific murders in Paris or to excuse it in any way. But it is reason to wonder why the media can never tell a more nuanced story of what is happening our world."

Words have the power to change minds and turn hearts and kill spirits. Power is in words and images and we all have a responsibility that extends beyond our voices and into the ears and eyes of our audiences.

Shouldn't we take some responsibility for the way we marginalize others? The way we belittle and humiliate? If you put a tiger in a cage and taunt it, what happens? (Hell, if you put anything in a cage and taunt it, over time, what happens?) If you bully an outcast for long enough, what happens? If you draw pictures hyperbolizing ethnicity and paste them to the mirrors and doors, windows and ceilings of your subjects, what then?

"I'm marching but I'm conscious of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation." — Dalia Ezzat (@DaliaEzzat_) January 11, 2015

There is a noticeable difference in tone between those who have reacted first and those who waited a few days before publishing, for example this piece by Roxane Gay:

"... Life moves quickly but, sometimes, consideration does not. And yet, we insist that people provide an immediate response, or immediate agreement, a universal, immediate me-too—as though we don’t want people to pause at all, to consider what they are weighing in on. We don’t want to complicate our sorrow or outrage when it is easier to experience these emotions in their simplest, purest states.

The older (and hopefully wiser) I get, the more I want to pause. I want to take the time to think through how I feel and why I feel. I don’t want to feign expertise on matters I know nothing about for the purpose of offering someone else my immediate reaction for their consumption."

In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates via his piece "I Might Be Charlie":

"I have so much to tell you, but it's raw and unseasoned. I need some time to marinate and then cook."


Me too.

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