January 08, 2015

The Birds: Charlie Hebdo (Updated with Rebuttal and Commentary)

Charlie Hebdo
The above comic strip depicts a character saying a dumb and wrongheaded thing in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It was conceived as a critique of the character's stance. The Birds features a cast of twisted characters who regularly say dumb and wrongheaded things. This strip caused unnecessary hurt among French gamers, many of whom read it as me expressing the view I set out to criticize. Out of respect for their reaction I asked Yohann Delalande to expand comments made on Facebook into the following rebuttal. I am grateful to him for writing it.

Appended afterwards for ease of reference are my thoughts, written after I realized that the first panel was being read as an expression of my views, again adapted from a previous Facebook/G+ response.

Dear Robin,

When I saw this strip 2 days ago, a part of me was shocked, even though I could understand what you tried to convey. I also remembered that the perspective people from another continent have is tremendously different from those with an inside view, especially when you’re right in the middle of a real massacre. This is why I decided to wait a little before writing this post, just to make sure I was a bit more clear-headed.

As a The Birds reader, I know what the characters stand for, and that the comments they utter might not necessarily echo the opinions of their author. Aren’t these characters a cynical mirror of our society after all? They’re dysfunctional, constantly at each other’s throat and seem to revel in adopting all the evils of our culture as a way to validate their existence. The Birds can thus be said to belong to the caricature genre, because, honestly, I can’t picture a Robin D. Laws pulling a gun out at anybody for any verbal threats he might receive or perceive, unlike his characters.

However, very few French RPGers have ever read The Birds and this strip that has been published just at the beginning of a series of tragic events which have seen their conclusion only yesterday –or so I really hope –really hurts. We haven’t started to lick our wounds yet. Grieving is at its beginning. People died and a symbol of freedom which is really dear to us, freedom of speech, was attacked in the most violent way.

Many of us grew up reading these cartoonists, laughing at their silly style and messages. They were, and are still part of our culture. These cartoonists made us all laugh, they shocked us, they would knock down what could be called the French establishment with their caricatures, if such a thing has ever existed here. But what is also clear is that at every new issue of Charlie Hebdo, the journalists, chroniclers and cartoonists voiced their own opinion in what’s going wrong in our country, but also in the world, opinions that would find an echo among many people, which would shake the certitudes held by many others and which would give them food for thoughts, but which would also cause a lot of outcries from fundamentalists and targeted politicians.
Then it happened. Since last Wednesday, 17 people have died, slaughtered by terrorists who are trying to force their laws on ours. The French people has been quick to react and the reaction of support from the whole world to this tragedy that hit us has really warmed our heart with blog posts, speeches and cartoons.

Conversely, many people arose on the internet, pointing fingers at this weekly newspaper and at what they denounced as racism and sexism. The debate shifted from standing up against terror and the attempt to crush down our freedom of speech to a debate about whether Charlie Hebdo was a “creepy racist”, misogynistic and anti LGBT newspaper.

Many have been justifying their claims by saying that if complaints were filed against them, only to be dismissed soon after by the French justice, it obviously means they’re guilty. Many arguments backing that view can be found on the social media. But I’m not writing this post to try and prove them wrong. I’m just trying to explain why your strip has hurt us.

As a side note, we've got a 40-year old law here - the Pleven law - which fines and/or sentences to jail any racist and hate acts, be they voiced or enacted. And if some French politicians have already been condemned thanks to this law, then I’ll leave the readers free to make their own judgment.
Today, our whole country is standing up against terrorism, against censorship, against attacks on our freedom of speech and freedom of press, and even though anybody is entitled to have their own opinion regarding Charlie Hebdo, be it documented or not, grieving shouldn’t be confused with worshipping, just like creepy racism shouldn’t be equated with bawdy irreverence, which many French excel at actually.
To come back to The Birds now, what I’m trying to tell you, Robin, is that you should know that all the French RPGers who have seen your recent strip strongly feel that you’ve endorsed the side of those who ‘re denouncing Charlie Hebdo as racist, that your characters mirror your own opinions, when what you actually meant was that their debate should wait.

But as I said at the beginning of this message, a part of me was shocked by your strip when I saw it too. This massacre is too recent, it has shaken us so violently, and nobody could see where your support was. We didn’t feel that you were empathizing with the events we’ve been living these last few days. We didn’t understand you, but most importantly, we thought that you didn’t understand us.

Your comic strip has hurt us, Robin, whether we can put some context behind it or not, and even though it was unintentional. Its publication was untimely, its formulation too ambiguous and it has been felt like a slap on our face coming from a game designer many of us admire and look up to.

Yohann Delalande, January 10, 2014

Back to Robin:
If you create something and people hate it, you should be ready to take your lumps.
I was slow to realize that French readers were reacting to the strip as if Shirley in the first panel is speaking for me. It has taken  me a while to fully twig to this because I’m on the road and unable to track conversations in real time. But even more because to me the premise of this strip, as far as I’m concerned, is that Shirley is saying very much  the wrong thing.
I felt compelled to write this strip watching the English language conversation around a number of racially charged images from Charlie Hebdo. Although from a North American perspective certain of them are very hard to look at, I felt, and feel, that the time to have a debate over their propriety is not now, after the mass murder of cartoonists, staffers and police. Maybe in a year or two, maybe never, but not when the focus should be on the crucial importance of free speech when it is under deadly threat.
Yohann helped to further clarify matters by pointing out that a flood of readers has come to the strip for the first time. If you read the Birds, you know that all of the characters are crazy or wrongheaded and that none of them are soapbox characters simply spouting the author’s views. If you’re seeing it for the first time, though, you might not take what they’re saying with the necessary grain of salt. I was expecting the usual tiny trickle of clicks a Birds post gets, and failed to envision who would be confronted by it if it went viral.
I see this installment of the Birds strip as being about how hard people find it to support the freedom of speech they dislike. Shirley starts out wanting to focus on concerns that are, in the wake of these events, beside the point. If there's a character who agrees with me in this strip, it's Steve. But then he blows it too by expressing frustration at having to defend something he dislikes. Many of us can relate to that conflicted feeling, even as I would hope we rise above it and do the right thing.
These characters, and that common human frailty the strip portrays, are the butt of the joke,  Not the victims of the massacre.
Since I was taking a shot at the position I assigned to Shirley I failed to anticipate that so many would take the strip as my endorsement of it.
As a general rule you have failed as an artist if you have to explain your intent. We are responsible for the impact of what we do and not just what we meant to do.
For some the strip succeeded. They saw the context; the execution worked for them, and they read the strip with its intended meaning.
For those who read it not as a comment on how the vital importance of speech rights demands our respect for the fallen, but as a shot at them, I failed you by context or execution or both, causing you distress at a traumatic time. This distresses me in turn.
So what to do? It seems paradoxical to respond to pushback on a strip about free speech and the limits of cartooning by taking it down. It should stay up, if nothing else, so people who wish to do so can continue to lambast me for it. Hence this decision, to ask Yohann to rebut the cartoon, as he has so splendidly done here.