Could we learn to think of Muhammad cartoons as the new N-word?

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Do we run the cartoon or not?

This was the debate the Express publisher and I had last week, when he announced we’d be running the new cover of Charlie Hebdo on our opinion page rather than the simple, basic black “Je suis Charlie” I’d picked out.

Charley’s position was that we cannot tolerate any impingement on free speech, and not running the cover means the terrorists win. He was adamant, we were running it, end of story. He always has that “Because I’m the boss” card to play, which ultimately ends whatever disagreement we’re having.

So, that’s what we did. We ran it.


“Gulp.” How sad is that?

Yes, I had a little shiver of dread. You can’t predict what unpredictable people will do. Those who would murder others over cartoons aren’t merely unpredictable, they’re mentally ill. There is something intrinsically wrong with them, like a corrupt computer file — there’s a bad sector in their gray matter. “Terrorist” is too polite a word. They’re homicidal maniacs, and it’s generally a bad strategy to engage with homicidal maniacs for any reason. You can’t have a rational conversation with an irrational person. Attempting rational conversation with irrational people is as futile as trying to teach algebra to cats.

Were I holding the “Because I’m the boss” card, I’d have opted for the kinder, gentler “Je Suis Charlie” cartoon, because while I agree that concession to terrorists is admitting defeat and it also sets a worrisome precedent, I also know that although newspapers have the legal right to print something, there are all sorts of things they don’t print simply because they’re offensive. They’re just inappropriate in civilized society.

In other words, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. I can smack a pit bull in the face, but I probably shouldn’t. I can ignore “shark warning” signs at the beach and go into the water anyway. Probably a bad plan. I can stand on a corner in beautiful downtown Compton and holler racial slurs. Probably a super bad plan.

Even legally acceptable choices can have undesirable consequences, and a prudent person will stop and consider the consequences before making a choice. If I run an offensive cartoon knowing that some religion-crazed whackadoodle may go all Tazmanian Devil on me, it damn well better be worth it, as in, “People will die if I don’t run this cartoon!” If it’s not that dire, I should weigh the costs and benefits.

On the other hand, the First Amendment is everything to a journalist, columnist or cartoonist. We can’t allow it to be eroded. Even so, there are social lines we don’t cross. We could, but we just don’t. You won’t see cartoons making fun of a woman being raped or poking fun about child molestation. Likewise, you won’t see nappy-haired characters in black-face eating watermelons, or with slant-eyes, buck-teeth and wearing long, silky robes.


That wasn’t always the case.

If you’re old enough to remember the original Looney Tunes of the 1960s, you saw those racial stereotypes without thinking anything other than that they were really funny. Unless you were the butt of those jokes. Go find some of the originals, if you even can. You’ll be shocked at what passed for funny in the early ‘60s.

Further back than that, newspaper cartoons were often full of racial slurs and stereotypes. It took us a long while to realize that these “jokes” were hurtful. Average, mainstream white America probably didn’t even really grasp why these jokes and cartoons hurt others, but at least came to accept that they DID hurt. Little by little, racial stereotypes started fading into history. We started changing what we said, wrote and drew. It’s still not perfect, but it’s progress.

So, current racial unrest notwithstanding, if we’re able to grasp that racial stereotypes hurt, even in cartoons, can we do the same with Muhammad cartoons? No one thinks that the First Amendment is crumbling because we don’t use the “N-word” anymore — would the First Amendment be any less stable if we didn’t draw Muhammad? Me, I can easily do my job without ever once needing to draw Muhammad.

All that said, do not get the impression that I have any sympathy or affection for the homicidal maniacs in Paris, or anyone else who kills innocent people, or anyone who supports them. I do not. I’m not down with the whole “Draw Muhammad and you die” mentality. I can’t wrap my brain around that level of aggression and insanity. Those “people” and me – I suspect we’re not even of the same species, and if we are, clearly we have not evolved at the same pace. But the sad fact is, we’re all stuck on this planet together and we have to figure out how to coexist in peace. We don’t have to like each other, we just have to leave each other alone. If it starts with a moratorium on Muhammad cartoons, so be it.

The first step, I suppose, is to place Muhammad cartoons in the same category with the N-word. They’re offensive and have no place in a society that seeks for all its members to be treated with dignity and respect.

Yeah, yeah, I said that, and it still bugs me. It feels like wearing itchy wool underwear. It’ll be awhile before I’m comfortable with it. But if it results in peaceful co-existence, I’ll suck it up and wear them.

So, Mr. Extremist Jihadist Terrorist, how about you? If non-Muslims agree not to draw Muhammad cartoons, would you agree to stop slaughtering people? I think that’s a fairly decent trade. Because you know how you feel when you see a Muhammad cartoon? Well that’s how we feel when you slaughter innocent people. We non-Muslims find that super offensive.

But, oh, silly me, I’m trying to be rational.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my cat’s algebra lesson.

— Email Debra DeAngelo at; read more of her work at and

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