There is little left to be written about the attacks in France last week. On Wednesday January 7 two masked men forced themselves into the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The men were heavily armed and proceeded to murder 12 people, injuring a further 11 as they made their escape. In the days that followed a number of other people were killed, including some of those suspected of plotting and conducting the attacks, and many more injured during the course of a manhunt to apprehend the initial murderers.
The motivation for the attacks is commonly believed to be outrage at the persistent lampooning of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. The murders, and this should go without saying, are completely unjustifiable. Yet, the public response to the killings is also inadequate, and sadly predictable. In the aftermath millions took to the streets and social media to proclaim their support for the victims and in defence of freedom of speech. The slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ became a mantra for the purported reclamation of freedom of speech and expression. In this wave of indignation Charlie Hebdo has been channelled as a symbol for the right of individuals’ to speak their minds; the right to challenge opposing views and taboos, even if offence is caused.
The public fervour to jump on the ‘Je suis Charlie’ bandwagon is easily understandable: a horrific attack was waged on the Charlie Hebdo staff because the attackers took offence to what the magazine was publishing. The knee-jerk reaction is a desire to self-identify with the victims and the magazine itself. These were, after all, a bunch of people, like us, just trying to express their views in a free publication. In turn, linking Charlie Hebdo to the broader ideal of free speech simplified the narrative by presenting us with clear figures of right and wrong. It is right to endorse free speech and support those who exercise their right to speak freely. It is wrong to curtail free speech and attack those who say things we don’t agree with. This presents us with a clear black and white narrative: Charlie Hebdo are the good guys, their attackers are bad, and surely we must self-identify with the good guys? In contrast what I would like to suggest is that not only are there no good guys, but free speech, in and of itself, is an entirely grey area.
A number of pieces have already taken Western society to task for the hypocrisy of rallying under the banner of free speech, whilst, simultaneously, perpetrating a system in which who gets to speak and in what ways is rigorously censored [for example, see Cas Mudde, “No, we are NOT all Charlie (and that’s a problem),” https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/cas-mudde/no-we-are-not-all-charlie-and-that%E2%80%99s-problem]. The underlying conception of free speech presented in these articles is that of absolute impunity: because we can’t effectively regulate speech in a fair and neutral manner, we must begin to embrace complete free speech, like Charlie Hebdo. In this respect, freedom of speech is equated to a no holds barred mode of public engagement: every slight, slur, insult or slander is permitted because everyone is entitled to have a voice, regardless of how much we may personally disagree with what is said. The logic is that by allowing everything to be said, we also have the ability to criticise and satirise everything in a Habermassian system of discursive checks and balances.
The problem with this conception of free speech is that it empties the issue of all context and, therefore, politics. If we demand absolute free speech we ostensibly wash our hands of the problem and refuse to critically engage with what this ideal actually means in practice. For, invariably, this form of unchecked discourse leads to situations in which the loudest and most prevalent voices intimidate and bully minorities and any differing views. Which, coincidentally, brings us to the case of Charlie Hebdo. The magazine and its supporters proudly boast the Charlie Hebdo mocks all religions and all viewpoints equally, it is neutral in its satire. And while the magazine has certainly lampooned Christianity, the contextual contours of ridiculing Islam and ridiculing Christianity are not equivalent in contemporary French society. Muslims in France represent an increasingly marginalised and disenfranchised minority. A hangover from France’s colonial past that is now used as a drum for right-wing politics and fears of cultural decline; banning the Hijab and questioning Muslim’s willingness to integrate within French society. It is within a context of marginalisation that Charlie Hebdo began to steadily increase the volume of cartoons openly and deliberately mocking Islam and Muslim culture: for example, hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, and Muslims engaging in homosexuality and sodomy. A magazine predominantly staffed by middle-class, white males, has persistently mocked a minority group because they disagree with their theological and cultural ideals. Now, of course, this does not in any way justify the January 7 attacks. However, it does tell us something about the type of free speech that ‘Je Suis Charlie’ supporters are advocating.
The foundational myth of Charlie Hebdo and its claim to free speech is that it mocks everyone equally. This is not true, it only mocks those who are different. Charlie Hebdo is the free speech equivalent of a school yard bully, targeting anyone who doesn’t think like them or believe what they believe. It resorts to the crudest and most juvenile forms of mockery, and publishes openly racist images under the disclaimer of anti-racist satire. Charlie Hebdo is a Dapper Laughs collective making pathetic jokes and claiming banter as if it’s an adequate defence. It is a bastion of free speech in the same way a bratty child is: spewing self-righteous twaddle at anyone who has the temerity to suggest that they should just behave.
Like many others, however, I do want to live in a world that has some vestiges of free speech. Above all, the ability to state one’s opinions and beliefs without fear of violent reprisal or incarceration. And, yes, Charlie Hebdo are part of the dynamics of this ideal of free speech. But free speech, importantly, does have dynamics, it has contextual dimensions. That is why we need to be attentive when we speak: about what we say, why we say it, and to whom we address. If we want free speech, in other words, we have to be mature enough to at least try to critically reflect upon the socio-political dynamics in which we speak and write. In short, we can do better than Charlie Hebdo styled free speech. We are better than a shared economy of insults masquerading as a noble ideological mission. There are better symbols of free speech than a group of juvenile French men and women who use free speech as a tool to insult and provoke those they don’t agree with: Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, for instance, who have been hunted and, in Manning’s case, imprisoned for speaking up against what they saw as injustice, or Malala Yousafzai who took a bullet to the head for demanding education. It is for these reasons, and many more, that I am not Charlie Hebdo, and thankfully the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances are not Charlie Hebdo. Because to live in a world where our primary response to difference of culture and beliefs is to resort to crude generalised insults is frankly intolerable.