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Je Suis Charlie

by on January 12, 2015 6:15 AM

In the model of communication, it is called the filter.

A person initiates some communication activity (i.e. a text message, an email or the spoken word) in response to a thought, an idea or a situation.

In most instances, that message goes through what is called the communication filter. We hesitate and then reword, wrap up or manipulate what we are really thinking to make the message more acceptable to whom we perceive to be our target audience – and for our own comfort and safety.

Let's say you go shopping with a friend to hit the post-holiday, end of the year sales. Your friend comes out of the dressing room, wearing a pair of pants and asks "Are these pants too tight?" Your thought bubble is "they look like they were spray painted on and you had to use pliers to close that bulging zipper." Your brain flashes through a series of possible consequences for expressing that opinion and you insert the filter to make the message more acceptable. "Those first pants you had on look really nice and would look great with that sweater."

The communication filter.

We learned a horrible lesson this week about the communication filter with the massacre of the cartoonists in France. For years, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has published the unfiltered, and sometimes controversial, thoughts and opinions of the artists who draw their political cartoons.

Although the magazine was widely seen as having indiscriminate disrespect and a no-holds-barred approach to satirizing everyone, everything and every religion, the works of Charlie Hebdo were particularly offensive to extremists in the Muslim religion. In spite of repeated acts of violence against the magazine and the need for a full security detail for the editorial staff, the artists at Charlie Hebdo continued. Last week, twelve innocent people lost their lives and several others were injured because of what terrorists believed to be sacrilegious political humor.

Will fear of retribution now lead to greater filtering by entertainers, news and other media sources and by our government?

In this writer's opinion, we need to be very careful with the filter.

In our day to day activities, we filter all the time. To avoid hurting someone's feelings. Because of our our perception of power within our relationships. Based on our experience, our personal history and our personality. Sometimes we filter because of fear of consequence or retribution.

The personal filter works because of the intimate nature of relationships but do those benefits carry over when we filter our message to the masses? Do we expect those who serve to inform and educate, entertain and govern us to do so through the filter of personal taste and individual or group preference? When a politician sugar coats a message or a comedian tones down a joke because of fear, what do we sacrifice? Most important, who gets to make the decision?

When we begin to allow those who disagree with us to decide what and how much we can say, we are setting the foundation for allowing those same people to decide what we can do.

On a comparatively miniscule level, I understand the decision that likely faced the cartoonists. It can be safer to tone it down. I have been on the receiving end of comments and reactions that were hurtful and meant to inflict pain, merely because a reader disagreed with my opinions. I admit there are times that I have thought about who will read what I write and what their reactions will be and the possible consequences of my words. I worry less now about the reactions to my opinions than I did in my early days of writing but it's always lingering in the background. (I'll save reactions to postings on Facebook by a non-tenured faculty member and awkward conversations for another time). However, if faced with threats of harm to me or my family, I don't know what I would do.

The bravery and the dedication of the cartoonists to making sure the unfiltered message was and will be communicated is awe inspiring.

Dissension, disagreement and discussion of the important issues serves the greater good.

There are those who will argue that respect and decorum, if not the previous threats and acts of harm against the Charlie Hebdo organization, suggested that filtering themes of the cartoons would have been the safer decision. In reality, it is about censorship and fear. Throughout history, we have seen the dangers of allowing one group of angry, dictatorial people to attempt to filter the thoughts and the words of others. If we have learned anything, it is that a free people allow others to speak their minds, even if we disagree with what they are saying – or drawing.

Will we stand with the French in our right to speak freely, without a filter, or will we stand by and keep silent?

Je Suis Charlie.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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