"To arms, comrades!" For those who often bear the brunt of propagandistic hatemongering in political cartoons this can seem threatening in a way its authors may not have intended.

Je ne suis pas Charlie: On the Charlie Hebdo massacre and duelling extremisms

What happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo yesterday sent a chill down my spine, as I imagine it must have to anyone who makes a living on the world’s opinion pages. 

The outpouring of grief over the senseless slaughter of twelve people, gunned down as they worked, seems to have brought a vast, diverse public together, united in condemnation of violence let loose over words and images. These murders are understandably being seen as an attack on free expression; if nothing else, this tragedy is considerably more serious than the last free speech martyr we collectively anointed, in the form of a dreadful Seth Rogen film.

But the ever lingering threat, already rapidly swelling up in commentary online around the world, is that of an equally violent reactionary backlash that — unlike Islamic extremists — cloaks itself in the lofty rhetoric of democracy and liberty. #KillAllMuslims trended on Twitter as people clamored to spread and defend Charlie Hebdo’s many inarguably racist caricatures of Muslims, as well as its often puerile humor — in one case depicting the schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram as welfare queens (see below) — while braying for the death, deportation, and bombing of anyone perceived to be Muslim; as we go to press, mosques in France have been attacked, likely in retaliation. All this screaming beneath a banner of “Free Speech.”

Charlie Hebdo cover saying: "The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry. 'Don't touch our child benefits!'"

“The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry. ‘Don’t touch our child benefits!'” This is what ‘punching down’ looks like.

The stakes here are unaccountably high; unlike in the shameful carnival of chest-beating that attended The Interview, lives were actually lost. But what both cases have in common is an impoverished idea of free speech that is actually anathema to a democratic society, makes idols of art that should be up for discussion, and threatens to make a mockery of the very ideals people claim to be defending now.

Simply put, by making untouchable martyrs out of the slain Charlie Hebdo writers and artists, and belittling the longstanding concerns many have had about the newspaper’s history of racism, we compound the tragedy and do further violence to free expression. Terrorism’s chilling effect requires the complicity of a public that uses its collective power to do what no number of bullets or bombs ever could: in this case, the reaction of many to the shootings will further restrict free speech, coarsen debate, and leave ethnic minorities — especially Muslims — in a compromised position whence they can’t speak freely, under threat of violence or oppression.

It starts with the well-meaning “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) slogan that many lent their names to in a show of support and sympathy for the newspaper, its remaining staff, and those who grieve.

I support the sentiment, the empathy, the compassion that the slogan represents at its best (even if many are using it as a cover to spread Islamophobia as a misguided form of protest against Islamic extremism). But the simple fact is, I am not Charlie. I couldn’t be. Rather, I’m the sort of person who’d only ever get to be an ugly, rude caricature in their pages — a trans woman, a Latina, Puerto Rican but in the same community of Latinos scapegoated for various and sundry evils in the US, much as Muslims are in France. I’d never be the one wielding the pen, merely the lewd, pornographic subject and nothing more. I’d be fit for only the consumption of a privileged community, their joke, an unwilling jester. No, je ne suis pas Charlie.

Holding these ideas in tension — the recognition of the unnecessary prejudice of many Charlie offerings, and respecting those who were lost — is part of the challenge many of us face going forward.

I do not say that to disrespect the dead, but to add to the necessary proliferation of speech that must follow on from such a tragedy. Indeed, in cases like these there is a tragic irony to the invocation of liberty as a bloodied flag to drape one’s self in: we defend free speech in the abstract but loudly shout it down in the specific, precisely because it may challenge the powerful, or at least afflict a comfortable orthodoxy. It becomes its own form of religious extremism; every non-Muslim Westerner who ever rolled their eyes at Islamic extremists going on about their “martyrs” should take stock of just what it is they’re invoking when they call the victims of Wednesday’s shooting by that name.

In addition to this, there is a deep immaturity in the shouting down of critique here. To write, draw, create, or opine is to enter a congress of discourse. It is a conversation, often an acrimonious one, but it is what the life of creative work consists of. Whatever one’s feelings on the Hebdo cartoons and editorial line, the staff not only had a right to publish it, but the society and culture in which they intervened had (and retains) a right to reply. To do otherwise, to freeze these slain writers and cartoonists in amber upon a pedestal is to actually disrespect them and their work, to pull it from the stream of discourse that is the life essence of creative work.

It also makes these murders into perversely unassailable positive reviews — as if the slaughter proves the veracity of the comics’ content or their moral rectitude beyond all doubt. As if all debate should die with the victims. More perverse still to challenge “political correctness” by holding Charlie Hebdo forever above criticism whilst standing on a platform built over its staff’s freshly dug graves. Free speech and inquiry this ain’t.

There is no sin in debating an artistic creation, and I use the term “sin” advisedly here. When I spoke on this issue on Twitter yesterday one man accused me of justifying the murders, falsely claiming that I’d argued that the slain writers and cartoonists “had it coming.” This sort of bad faith was compounded by the same individual spreading Islamophobic propaganda; free speech for him, but not for anyone who treats Charlie Hebdo as anything less than pristine (something I suspect their irreverent staff would have found quite laughable). And certainly no free speech for Muslims who are loudly expected to do nothing but “condemn” this atrocity, and then make no other meaningful contribution to this discussion.

To question this narrow reading of free speech is, indeed, to find one’s self with no right to speak whatsoever, ironically. But you do no honor to those who made their lives creating and criticizing if you then make them “sacred” and untouchable.

Image of writing utensils with text in French: "To arms, comrades!"

“To arms, comrades!” For those who often bear the brunt of propagandistic hate-mongering in political cartoons this can seem threatening in a way its authors may not have intended.

The old saw about pens and swords comes to mind, as does my regrettable high school yearbook quote: “My keyboard is my sword.” Words are weapons, and as a Spanish cartoon made clear yesterday (see above), it’s an idea that many in the press seize on with great fervor.

But we seem to acknowledge this while also disclaiming responsibility, as if the words themselves are at once weapons and harmless, deadly and yet also mere toys. Free speech, however, is not a toy. It is a responsibility, a compact, which democracy presupposes we are mature enough to use justly. We are called on as citizens not to use our rights for bacchanals of self-indulgence and emotional expectoration, but to do the work of maintaining society.

What does it mean when we see words as weapons that we have no responsibility to use ethically?

The worst thing we could do in the wake of this massacre is to wrap ourselves in knots defending free speech in the abstract while finishing the work of terrorists by torching what is left of it.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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