Mark Leiren-Young & Ian Ferguson @ Charlie Hebdo rally in Victoria, BC.
Mark Leiren-Young & Ian Ferguson @ Charlie Hebdo rally in Victoria, BC.

I’d just read the news about Charlie Hebdo when CBC Radio contacted me. They wanted me to come on the air the next morning and talk about what happened, share a satirist’s perspective. They did a pre-interview with me. I burst into tears.

I’ve had people threaten to kill me for my comedy. I’ve also been accused of being a racist.  So when I heard what happened in France, I didn’t hesitate to jump on the “Je Suis Charlie” Twitter train. I’m friends with several funny writers who’ve had their lives threatened over their words. It’s a safe bet that none of them analyzed the merits of Charlie’s satire before declaring “Je Suis Charlie.”

Yep, some people may consider Charlie’s work offensive, some people consider it hate speech, some people feel it “crossed the line.” As a Jew I’ve been told that I’d find some of Charlie’s stuff anti-Semitic – if I’d done better than a C- in high school French and could read anything more complicated than menus. And I don’t care. If you’re not in favour of speech that offends you, you’re not in favour of free speech.

I’ve served on the Freedom of Expression Committee for the Book and Periodical Council of Canada for about twenty years. That often means standing up for the rights of hate mongers and idiots to be idiotic and spew hate. Whatever Charlie Hebdo published, marching into their office with Kalashnikovs… not an act of legitimate literary criticism.

They were cartoonists. They were assassinated for either being funny, or trying to be funny.

I thought we’d left the age when court jesters had to worry about being beheaded.

The photo above features my friend Ian Ferguson. Ian’s what I’d call, “an Alberta redneck.” Ian considers me, “a leftcoast, pinko, hippie, tree-hugger.”

About the only thing we agree on politically is that voting is a good idea – although I’m not sure either of us would give the other a lift to the polls in the next federal election.

But it was Ian who let me know about the Charlie Hebdo rally in Victoria, BC. It was his first time protesting anything anywhere.

Ian is co-author of the insanely popular book, How to Be a Canadian. So he knows that being a Canadian means you’re not supposed to offend anyone at any time for any reason. What Charlie Hebdo does is very unCanadian and if they were publishing here someone would have probably charged them with a human rights violation or twelve. But arguing the merits of “human rights tribunals” determining the limits of free speech in this country is another issue for another day.

I’ve done dozens of radio interviews over the years – maybe hundreds – and I’m always excited about going on the air.  TV interviews make me nervous. I know I’ll strike the wrong pose, or my hair will look even more unruly than usual. But radio…. especially CBC radio… smart people, asking smart questions. I love being on CBC radio. But this interview… I could barely sleep the night before my studio visit. My stomach was in knots. I was worried I’d either lose my temper, cry, or both. I didn’t do either. But all I could think of afterwards was how much more I wanted to say – like how the people who were shot could just has easily have been Seth Rogen, the South Park guys or Stephen Colbert or…

And I wish I’d mentioned that none of my friends who’ve had their lives threatened were threatened for offending Muslims.

I’ve interviewed Bill Maher and Michael Moore. Both men told me they knew they could be killed for making jokes. When I met Maher he’d just insulted Christians in his movie Religilous. Moore had just insulted his usual target – Republicans. When I started out as a satirist I was threatened for making fun of American tourists, Expo 86 and anti-Semites. After I wrote a play about Shylock, people wondered if I’d find myself in trouble with Jews.

When you’re making jokes about anything more controversial than chickens crossing the road there is always someone who thinks you crossed the line. And somewhere out there is a radical vegan upset that the previous joke exploits chickens.

Here’s what I said about “the line” on CBC Radio.

Canada’s National Freedom to Read Week is February 22-28.

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