Day 11: Sticks and Stones may Break my Bones…

…but cartoons will never hurt me. Today’s post will not be neither short nor sweet. Day eleven was one of the most sobering days of my life. We walked more than we have walked on any day of this challenge, with a conviction in each step that went beyond anything I have ever felt before.

Mrs Playmo and I went to Montpellier that day to march in the memory of those killed in the recent attacks in Paris. The anger and pain of the French is palpable. The distress, horror, incomprehension and the deep sorrow that I see on faces every day have turned my stomach and placed a brick in its depths since last week, when obscurantism defied the very principles on which France is based.

One of the 100,000 people walking on Sunday shows her commitment to freedom of expression.

One of the 100,000 people walking on Sunday shows her commitment to freedom of expression.

Tears have been shed for the victims. And also for the values at the very core of France, attacked by cowards who do not understand that freedom of speech is necessary for all societies, because everything can and should be criticised. A world that cannot question itself and others cannot evolve.

I suspect that the liberation of France was the last time this kind of turnout was seen across the nation. The overwhelming solidarity of the walkers was the biggest raspberry that anyone could blow at fundamentalist puppets and those pulling their strings. The crowd was made up of Muslims, Christians, Jews. Adults, children, old-aged couples with walking sticks, people in wheelchairs. All together, spontaneously applauding. On our arrival at the Place du Peyrou, I looked back and saw the dense black column of citizens, stretching away below Montpellier’s mini Arc de Triomphe with its flag at half mast, and disappearing on the horizon. A soprano took the microphone and starting singing the Marseillaise, and the collective voice of tens of thousands of people of all origins rose to the sky. They lifted pens, pencils, signs, fists and flags and bellowed that anthem with pride. Because beyond all their differences, they had one thing in common: they were all proud of France and the values it defends.

This scenario was repeated across France, with nearly four million people out in the street to show that they are all standing tall. It was echoed on an international scale. Forty representatives of other countries joined President Hollande –  many of whom had conveniently forgotten the attitude to the freedom of speech in their own countries.

In the media, in everyday conversations, on social networks and on blogs, I see people using their right to voice their opinions. Many have said that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo “asked for it”. To those who maintain that if you deliberately provoke, you get what you deserve, I would reply that satire is part and parcel of a normal society, and that nothing justifies killing for a drawing, however provocative it may be. I also ask the simple question: In what kind of world do they wish their children to grow up?

The famous 1831 caricature of Louis Philippe t...

The famous 1831 caricature of Louis Philippe turning into a pear would mirror the deterioration of his popularity. (Honoré Daumier, after Charles Philipon who was jailed for the original.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The satirical press has been a small but essential part of journalism for centuries. In 1831, Charles Philippon’s sketch transformed the face of King Louis-Philippe into a pear in four pictures. It landed him in prison for insulting the King – but even at that time in French history, no death penalty was applied for his cartooning “crime”. Philippon noted the impact his cartoon had on the French population:

“What I had foreseen happened. The people, seized by a mocking image, a simple image design and simple shape , began to imitate this wherever he found a way to make charcoal image smearing, scratching a pear. Pears soon covered all the walls of Paris and spread to all parts of the walls of France. ”

(Source: Charles Philippon, Lettres du 7 juillet 1846 à Roslje, Carteret, op. cit., p. 126).

The caricature is a direct and unambiguous form of public communication; it can be understood quickly by everyone and produces an immediate reaction. Political caricatures have always existed, and it is inevitable that someone’s nose will be put out of joint. But as artist Bob Mankoff from the New Yorker pointed out in a recent cartoon, a culturally, ethnically, religiously, and politically correct cartoon is no more than a blank page.


Before claiming that cartoonists should bow to the demands of extremists who cannot accept criticism in any form, please imagine the day where political correctness and fear of reprisal removes all satire from the world in a bid to avoid insulting political figures, or attracting the ire of regimes, movements, and religions. Because not only journalists are concerned by this. All types of art are in danger of censorship, and your personal liberty is in danger as a result. If fear of reprisal leads to the international satirical press going under ground, what will they take down next with their Kalashnikov?

Books penned across the centuries contain satire or criticise religion, politics or culture. Could we burn Aesop’s fables, works written by Chaucer, Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Fielding, Poe, Dickens, Carroll, Twain, Wodehouse,  Shaw and Orwell, to name but a few, in the name of political correctness? You can forget Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Hergé and Goscinny for your kids, too. Kiss goodbye to The Chaser, The Onion, Fritz the Cat and Private Eye. What about film and theatre? Goodbye Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Exit Shakespeare and Molière, Casino Royale, Douglas Adams, The Clockwork Orange. Oh, and those TV chat shows you loved so much for their irreverent sarcasm about current issues – Yes Minister, Seinfeld, Have I got News for You, This Hour Has 22 minutes, Not the Nine o’clock News..? Could they all be sacrificed for fear of awakening obscurantist monsters who don’t believe that politics, culture and religion can be laughed at?

The same applies to artists and singers – were hit men sent to silence Lily Allen when she sang “F**k You”, described by music critics as a direct attack on George W. Bush? Was Pink Floyd ever censored?

The crucial question of the right to expression and the use of censorship also concerns you, Joe Blogger. You can lay out your opinion on your blog, unless you hate-monger there, without being censored in any way. Except in some countries, where bloggers who brave their government’s control over the freedom of expression risk weekly flogging and even death penalties for expressing their opinion online. Should they have “put a lid on it” in the face of oppression? Should we refrain from pointing a finger at the absurd, criticizing what must be criticised, through fear of reprisal by those who have recognized that the pen may just be mightier than the sword? No. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, translated into French on a piece of cardboard held above the crowd in front of me,  “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither”.


Now France is not only mourning, but thinking and debating. Many of those advocating freedom of speech appear to have rapidly changed their version on social media to “I’m all for freedom of speech as long as you don’t vote for….”  I watched in horror as discussions became debates then mud-slinging matches, and virtual and real friends “unfriended” each other as they discovered that their personal (or rather political) convictions were not the same. Yet we all have the right to speak. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words, and pictures, will never hurt me. I’ll wrap these musings up with the words of Voltaire, who said:

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

 Vive la liberté, et vive la France.

 Erratum: The quote attributed to Roosevelt should actually be attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who was the first person to say it back in 1755. Roosevelt used the quote in a 1941 speech, and has henceforth been wrongly quoted as its author by many, including me. Mea Culpa.

49 thoughts on “Day 11: Sticks and Stones may Break my Bones…

  1. hello !
    Je viens ici juste pour te faire un coucou, j’avoue que je n’ai pas la tête à lire un texte en anglais, là, tout de suite, maintenant 🙂
    J’espère que tout va bien à l’enclos, je vois beaucoup de playmobils 😛


    • Ben ça alors, j’étais sur ton blog et paf, tu étais en train de m’écrire en même temps! Le texte ici traite de ma vision d’un monde culturel réduit en pot de chagrin par la peur et le politiquement correct suite aux attentats. Quant aux playmos, c’est mon délire habituel sur ce blog. J’espère reprendre mes ruminations dès que mon sens de l’humour refait surface… Bisous à toi xx

      • Je n’ai pas su si c’est qu’on était trop bien synchronisées ou que tu avais déjà vu ce commentaire ! En tout cas, c’est drôle ! Oui, ces événement mettent tout le pays et tout le monde dans un état de peur pas très réjouissant…
        J’attends que ton sens de l’humour refasse surface alors, et sinon je passerai par ici de temps en temps même si c’est pour dire n’importe quoi 😛


  2. Friends gathered in their local town…a similar atmosphere to that you describe and then as one local bigwig after another grabbed the microphone someone started up with the Marseillaise and the crowd took the gathering into their own hands. This was for the people by the people and they did not need to be told what they were thinking and feeling.

    There seems to be shift happening in France…..which can go one of two ways.
    Either it’s the Front National, positing putting France and the French first or, and I hope it’s this way, reviving the other traditional French values and putting some life into equality,fraternity and liberty. The potential and the will are there….

    • It definitely wasn’t an occasion for political speeches – at least it wasn’t here in the Hérault.
      As for the shift you refer to, from what I can observe, a division appears to be more and more likely… The latest edition of CH came out this morning and copies are being resold on eBay for a fortune. People appear to have forgotten the whole idea of unity already. Meanwhile, Le canard enchaîné have received threats telling them that they are next on this list. Sad.

      • I’m not sure if the speeches were political but from what my friends said people weren’t happy to have the usual suspects mouthing platitudes…it just wasn’t the occasion.

        I did suspect that the CH edition would be bought as a momento or as a lucrative curiosity – no surprise there – but I was disappointed to see in the press that already the talking heads are nuancing their positions rather than making any attempt to harness the energy of those marches and meetings.

        I trust that the Canard offices will be better protected than those of CH while the internal and external surveillance services fight their war with the overseeing body.

      • Their title this week read “Ne vous laissez pas abattre”. As one cartoonist pointed out with a fantastic jeu de mots, “Les canards volent plus haut que les balles”… If we apply a little CH humour, we could say that ‘Le Canard’ shouldn’t be left as sitting ducks by the authorities…

      • I gather that the meeting arose from one of the local ‘characters’ suggesting when and where over the social network; then the council made it official which was fair enough, but people wanted to mark the attack in their own way, not be harangued.

  3. Following 9-11 we Americans went through a period, seems like it was quite a short period, when lines of political division were permeable and differences in tone and opinion were not only tolerated, but respected. Shock has a way of softening defensiveness about minor things when all the energy goes into protecting the emotional self. I hope that among people who profess to value freedom of speech ideals we can unify rather than continually attempt to censor debate and just pick each other apart. So much essential time and resource is lost in the unwillingness to respect difference in ideals. Your comment about how people “friend” and “unfriend” on FB because of political views and postings is really spot on. If we can’t even be tolerant of each other’s views on such a small and rather unimportant platform, we’re an insidious part of a larger problem. I’m deeply saddened for the loss of lives last week, and had I been able, I would have wanted to march alongside you. I’m so glad you’ve shared your experience. Your words deeply touch and affect me. ox

    • I agree with the notion of “permeability” you describe. There has been a change in France – it was a real wake-up call. However, I have the feeling that some have hardened their line on immigration and race issues whilst others are desperately trying to convince all around them that differences don’t exist when they do. It’s as if everyone needs to take position on this, and this need creates more tension because feelings are so raw. I truly hope that nobody loses track of the reason behind the unity shown this weekend.
      Oh, and I would have been proud to walk with you at my side. Hugs across the big pond xxxx

    • Hi there, WWN! Thanks for popping round! (MM puts kettle on and drags out biscuit barrel…). Thank you for the lovely compliments. I had to get it off my chest, in the full knowledge that the sensitive subject wouldn’t attract too many comments. Proof in itself that we’re not as free to express ourselves as we’d like to think 😉

      • Your WP ‘friends’ should be flocking to support you as you have encapsulated so well what I thought were the feelings of those of us who enjoy freedom of speech. We take it for granted. We assume it is our right. We use it every time we blog and comment. Are we so spoiled now that we think terrorism could never darken our doorstep? Or are we afraid to speak up?

      • I agree that freedom of speech is a right that is not permanent, like many others – if we aren’t prepared to defend individual rights, they can simply disappear at the hands of others. Apathy is the biggest enemy of freedom, and generally it’s the people who never step out to vote who shout the loudest when things don’t go the way they want.
        Having said that, I can understand that many bloggers, particularly those living in Asia, the Middle East, Syria, Afghanistan, etc, hesitate to publicly take position on this type of issue as they are in a potentially vulnerable position.

      • I totally agree with you about middle and far eastern bloggers who may be taking a risk with every word they publish but surely those of us in the ‘free’ west could at least defend your right to publish your opinion and like and comment on your post.

      • I appreciate your support, WWN 🙂 They have the right to do so… or not. I guess that’s the whole point of freedom of speech. Not everyone is comfortable about taking position though.

  4. Powerfully written and I’m reminded of my own personal oath after 9-1-1 here in the states when I really had to think about the Americans that took over the plane and changed history that day. I made the conscious decision to go forward fighting than to just blandly accept. Your writing really captures it all here, the indecision and yet the absolute certainty that decisions must now be made.

    • Hello, and thanks for commenting! The decision taken by the passengers on that flight was heroic. 9-11 was the epitome of evil, and I agree that apathy and submission are the worst possible way to handle it.
      During the hostage-taking in the Montrouge supermarket, a student died trying to take down the terrorist.A muslim employee of the Kasher shop hid many customers in the basement freezer and no doubt saved their lives. Meanwhile, the boss who saw two armed men arrive at the door of his company building rushed to tell his young employee to hide before they arrived upstairs. These people are heroes and I think that they are the image of multicultural France today.

  5. i think we need to begin to look less at how we all differ, but how we are all similar. We have had 800 years of division in Ireland and recent awful times in the north of Ireland, but where there is a will there is a way.
    Not all muslims are extremists. We need to build bridges, and unite to lessen the power of those who are, for want of a better description, ‘mad’ and fueled by hate.

    • Hi there Tric, and thanks for chipping in 🙂 I remember listening to radio reports about the conflicts in Ireland and particularly, Northern Ireland, and being shocked to the core by the photos on the front pages of newspapers.
      I agree that we have to concentrate of what we have in common, but the current trend for sweeping differences under the carpet is a mere illusion in my book. We have to accept our differences before being able to work together, and stop making sweeping generalizations if we wish to make a common front against these barmpots (that last term is a justified generalization). Hugs xxx

  6. I can’t see things getting any better when we can look forward to this:

    I watched Panorama on BBC1 iPlayer the other day about modernising British Islam. It was a very interesting programme, and I can see that it’s the way to go not only in the UK but also in France and indeed elsewhere.

    • Has Taubira lost her mind? Repeat offenders get the same chances of having their sentences cut down as first time offenders? Jeesh. I still haven’t got my head around the maths enabling Coulibaly to get out of prison in 2014, after having been condemned to 5 years in 2013 after a string of sentences for crimes that got worse and worse.
      Modernising Islam is crucial, I agree. It can only be done from the inside, and that’s not going to be easy.

  7. A rare event – PapaBob and The Mothership are in agreement. This particular blog is both thoughtful and balanced. Congratulations.

  8. Absolutely fantastic post. I especially love this – a culturally, ethnically, religiously, and politically correct cartoon is no more than a blank page. So true.

  9. First of all, I’m so glad whichwaynow took up the cheer in your post’s defense: where are the likes? It caught my attention immediately. This post is so eloquent, so topical, so moving, so spot on…I anticipated seeing a little note at the end “you and 647 other bloggers like this post.” Instead I saw nine. NINE?! Well let me point out MM that you DID touch many others, and their inability to click the button is proof of it. You have wielded your own pen well, my friend.

    Your perspective is valuable to me, and I thank you for putting your heart and soul here for us, to help us in our own commiseration and grieving, and to help us in our solidarity to fight the battle from where we stand. There is so much in this post! The cartoon of Louis turning into a pear and the quote after. I see now that Charles Philipon gave the people a gift! From this one cartoon, then all a person had to do was draw a pear (and how could one be arrested for that?), and it was an act of defiance. Voltaire’s quote suits this climate perfectly, and Roosevelt’s is one that I do not recall hearing. It makes me very sad, because in the days following 9/11, Americans jumped up by the millions, hands in the air, begging to be bound and gagged by the disgustingly-named Patriot Act.

    I hope the thinking and debating continues for all of us. And the friending and unfriending will maybe startle a few of us into listening instead of talking. Would it be alright with you if I reposted this on my own blog? I could get us another 3 or 4 likes over there, ha ha!

    • Thanks for the support, Crystal! of course you can share. I don’t count “likes”, I’m just happy to see it’s been read and delighted if I get feedback. It has been read a lot according to the stats page; I think that people avoid taking position on an open public platform, either because they don’t have the same opinion, or because they aren’t comfortable with commenting, to because they are worried thet might get mown down by a vehement contradictory diatribe penned by a troll who makes their life (and blog) a misery. Never happened to me, but not everyone in the blogging world is kind to others and not everyone is up to fighting back.
      Today the Charlie Hebdo visits were buried, and one of the survivors gave a very emotional speech. He said that if Charb had been a witness of recent events, he would have drawn a ma with a big nose with an ‘I am Charlie’ sign, then scrawled underneath: “PROVE IT”. He went on to request everyone to take up their pens, brushes, pencils, computers, and make sure that Charlies were born around the world to continue what his colleagues had begun.

  10. Very well said, MM. Satire has always worked to puncture the blind self-importance and corruption of power and must continue to do so. Over 50 years ago my O-Level textbook on C19th British history was full of the most bitingly satirical cartoons, some of which had made a measurable difference to the success of particular campaigns. Sadly the UK media are much more bland nowadays. Bring back Spitting Image!

    • Thanks for popping round, Miss P. You have one good memory if you remember the contents of your O level history books – I don’t! 😀 Ah, Spitting Image. I loved their Margaret Thatcher. I’m a fan of the French version on Canal + – watched it last night, when they portrayed the jihadists as the” barbapapas” recruiting children with a highly reticent “burkamaman”. They underlined the manipulation of youngsters and the way these monsters use them and send them out to die with explosives around their waists.

  11. An excellent piece … one of the fundemental reasons that I choose to live in France is that it embraces freedom of speech, understands that the lambasts of satirists are crucial to the healthy balance of its society. I was not here last week, in fact I have only arrived back today after 4 weeks in the UK. Watching from a distance I have never been so proud nor so emotional (besides totally personal hatchings matchings and dispatchings). Reading your piece made it very very real again – more real than BBC films with over-excited journos reporting the marches could get near. Real because your voice is raw. Your voice is passionate and although, like me you are not born French your voice is French. Thank you. Truly deeply thank you – I needed that read. And thank you also to Perpetua above me who rightly points to the fact that the other nation that had a great satirical institution is the country of my birth. Bring it back. Bring it back. Stop being afraid and bring it back …. to lose it is to lose the very biting beating heart of the place.

    • ❤ Thanks, Osyth. You've just swollen my head so much I won't be able to get back through the kitchen door 🙂
      Fear is what we have to fight, but also preconceived ideas about faith, politics and what could happen if we dare to call a spade a shovel. A sterilized word where none speaks their mind is no longer France. For those who wish to swap France for a world where opinion is controlled, they just had to ask the official who was in Paris on Sunday to walk in protest against the terrorists who silenced a satirical newspaper with guns, in the full knowledge that a blogger in his own country had been sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in jail for talking about freedom of speech on a blog. And unfortunately, he wasn't the only one who had conveniently forgotten how things are behind his own front door.

  12. Pingback: Where to draw the line | Conscious Engagement

    • Thanks, BW, and sorry for the delay getting back to you. I haven’t had time to get near the blog recently – I’ll do a big catch-up post soon with Mrs Playmo’s daily escapades.
      I’d love to have a column in a paper. I even wrote to Sainsbury’s magazine once, but they ignored me. Sniff.

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