When words collide

With our thoughts we make the world.” – Buddha

You’d have to be a hermit not to have heard about the atrocities carried out in France this week, which included the murders of writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo magazine. The media – in print and on our screens – are falling over themselves to debate the issues of free speech, free expression of ideas, the right to satirise, and also the freedom to hold religious and political views.

Like countless other writers I have watched the debate and the media storm, as well as the international show of solidarity. As a sometime satirist myself, I believe passionately that humour can enable us to confront ideas that we might otherwise shy away from, and to shine a light on the incongruities and paradoxes within us, our beliefs, our language and the societies we inhabit.

Fiction can take us into some very dark and strange places indeed; characters and circumstances which, even if we did not encounter them on the page, already exist in the ‘real world’.

For example, writing about violence, weapons, or fear is not a vicarious thrill for me. Having personally experienced physical threats in the past with a hammer, a knife and a gun (not, I hasten to add, as a result of my writing!), I find myself, at times, simultaneously drawn to similar situations on the page and repulsed by them. However, as a thriller writer, with one or two provisos, I allow the story to develop along its own lines. Sometimes we need to be scared, confronted, challenged and even outraged.

I am also aware that the other side of the argument carries some weight. In the workplace bullying is often defined not by the intention of the act, but by how it is experienced by the victim. It can’t simply be taken back with, “I was only kidding – I didn’t mean it that way.” Context cannot be presumed and it’s a truism that one can only reason with people who are reasonable.

Where does this leave us as individuals, as writers and as a society? In a word: troubled.

We need open dialogue, recognising that although our similarities will always be greater than our differences, it is those very differences that may us who we are (and who we think we are). 

If there may be one positive to come out of this tragedy I hope it will be an open and adult conversation about what it means to live in a democracy – both the freedoms we enjoy and the responsibilities it places upon us. In the meantime let’s all be mindful of the stories we tell and the ones we choose to consume – and occasionally remind ourselves that they are, in fact, just that: stories.

One comment

  1. Monika says:

    I've been thinking about this lately because my father is a political cartoonist who occasionally depicts the prophet Mohammed in his cartoons. My dad was in Paris just a few months before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, and spent a pleasant lunch hour with one of the cartoonists who was killed.

    Free speech is a thorny point of civil rights, because it gives people the freedom to say things that may be–to you–offensive, outrageous, racist, bigoted, utterly ignorant, blasphemous, and abhorrent. You may hate with a furious vitriol what other people have to say, but you must allow them to say it. Is this asking too much of human nature? Probably. And yet civilization apparently rests on the ability to not allow words to harm us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *