Monday, January 12, 2015

not sure I get the message

Journalist and tweeter Frédéric Ojardias slaps up the following cartoon from the Hangyeorae (한겨레, most often romanized "Hankyoreh" in defiance of the Korean government's generally sensible romanization scheme), a leftist newspaper in Korea, that was drawn in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I admit I don't quite get it on first viewing, so I'm going to waste some space in this blog post trying to think out loud about the image, and to see whether I can't parse the cartoon's elements and arrive at a coherent message. Then, I suppose, it's a question of whether I agree with the message I think I see.

Before I go further, though, a bit of background: Korea is currently experiencing its own free-speech troubles: Shin Eun-mi, a Korean-American woman, allegedly praised North Korea and also made some complimentary remarks about North Korean beer. What's more, she seems to have claimed that some defectors in South Korea have expressed a desire to return to the North. The South Korean government has reacted to this situation by first detaining, then deporting, Ms. Shin. The reason: Shin violated South Korea's national-security law, which prohibits pro-North rhetoric. Shin is also the author of books about her various trips to North Korea; the South Korean government had permitted their existence until recently, but is now banning them and attempting to get them removed from circulation.

It's hard not to see a link between the Charlie Hebdo massacre and any free-speech issue, so I suppose, on that level, the Hangyeorae cartoonist's perception of a Franco-Korean connection is understandable. The cartoon's deeper meaning, however, is somewhat obscure to me and needs to be teased out. The Hani image in question:

Let's look at the vocabulary in the cartoon. The overall situation is a bit "meta": the cartoon is essentially three panels, two panels of which are a "cartoon within a cartoon," with the third and largest panel depicting a fictionalized version of the cartoonist himself, looking down at his two-panel cartoon. The character in the second panel is speaking directly to the fictionalized cartoonist in a threatening manner. In the first panel, we see the expression "극단주의 #1," i.e., "Extremism [Case] #1." In smaller print is the expression "이슬람 조롱," or "mockery of Islam." This panel seems straightforward: the terrorist has summarily executed someone who just mocked Islam. The second panel opens with "극단주의 #2," i.e., "Extremism [Case] #2." Here, the terrorist, once drawn, now threatens the cartoonist who drew him/her, saying, "You think you'll have to express yourself that way? You'd better be careful, too." The smaller print, which labels the second panel's terrorist, says "종북 몰이," or "hunter of pro-North partisans." As we zoom back and go meta, we see the fictional cartoonist's fingers have broken into a sweat, indicating fear.

I assume, in this case, that the fictional cartoonist is a proxy for the leftist (and often pro-North) Hangyeorae itself. A leftist newspaper has much to worry about, especially when it exists in the shadow of a conservative government. If a Komerican like Shin Eun-mi can be deported for praising North Korean beer and noting—perhaps truthfully—that some NK defectors would like to return to their homeland, then what's in store for pro-North people who are actual citizens of South Korea? At a guess, that's what this cartoon's message is: there's an analogy between (1) the Islamist terrorists who are willing to gun down cartoonists disrespectful of Islam and (2) a South Korean government that won't hesitate to lock up or deport people who express positive thoughts about the North.

As much as I can't stand the Hangyeorae, I do believe I'm sympathetic with the thrust of this cartoon's message, even though I disagree that there's a strong analogy between beliefs that lead to carnage and laws that lead to incarceration or deportation. I'm sympathetic because truly free speech means that pro-North sentiments should be allowed to be aired in public. By the same token, those sentiments, once aired, should be submitted to public scrutiny and debate, where they will either flourish or wither in a most Darwinian manner, depending on their merits. This is what Americans are currently saying about free speech in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre: it's better for racist, bigoted, and otherwise odious sentiments to be aired freely than for the government to attempt to control people's thoughts and actions. I would agree. So as much as I deplore most of the Hangyeorae's often disagreeable content, I believe the paper has a right to exist and to express itself freely, without fear of expulsion, detention, or other punitive measures.

There's room for debate on this topic, obviously. Germany (among other countries) has made the expression of Holocaust-denial a crime, for instance, and I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing—for Germany. This is how the country is dealing with its unsavory past; I can't blame it for wanting to move as far away from that past as possible, even to the point of making a verbal denial of that past a legal transgression. Perhaps German law will, one day, adopt a more relaxed, liberal stance, and Holocaust-denial will eventually be allowed—only to be laughed off in the court of public opinion as an example of the lunatic fringe, much like the Flat Earth Society in the United States. For now, though, I can see why Germany has such a law in place. By extension, one could argue that South Korea's national-security laws regarding pro-North sentiments are right and just. I would disagree, but I admit I'd have to think, for a while, about the difference between the German and Korean cases.

So in the end, if I understand the Hangyeorae cartoonist's message correctly, the South Korean government is just like the Islamic terrorists. I think this is a wild-eyed exaggeration, given that the South Korean government neither shoots, nor bombs, nor decapitates dissenters. But if the basic idea is that South Korea suppresses free speech on dangerous topics, then I'm forced to agree that it does. So let me modify what I said above and declare myself only mildly sympathetic to the cartoonist's opinion. Living in the shadow of the South Korean government and its national-security law is nothing like living under the Sword of Damocles that is the threat of Islamist vengeance.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Well, technically speaking the South is still at war with the North. So supporting the enemy can legitimately be considered an act of war.

But as you say, until the South starts murdering the treasonous bastards there is no comparison....

The Maximum Leader said...

For what it's worth, I heard (twice) on CNN yesterday that France also has some sort of Holocaust denial speech law on the books. (Apparently denying the Holocaust publicly is illegal in France...)