By now you certainly know that twelve people were killed in France on January 7th in a terrorist attack. The satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was the target, reportedly as a revenge for the magazine’s ridiculing of Islam’s central figure, the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims consider it blasphemy.
In the wake of this terrible crime, people across the world have adopted the tagline, #Je suis Charlie, French for “I am Charlie.” There has been much discussion worldwide about free speech and freedom of the press, which I think is good.
Indeed, I entirely agree with something David Simon wrote after the shooting about the importance of taking a stand. The quote is buried toward the bottom of the comments section if you are looking.
Freedom of speech isn’t there for all the ideas that are self-evidently valuable or worthy. It’s there for those moments when speech is certain to offend someone. That’s when that civil liberty truly matters.
Of course, like everything else, the Je suis Charlie line has taken on a life of its own, kind of like those blasted pink ribbons. It becomes a way to express who you are and let the world know what you stand for.
Like a brand.
In one of the more interesting takes in the media, David Brooks, argues that the US’s response to the tragedy might be seen as a little hypocritical, as we are wont to squash controversial speech by shunning it and assigning way too much importance to the side-show acts. In his example, universities are known for occasionally disinviting controversial graduation speakers based on the reaction of the community.
From here, the discussion devolves into the anathema “political correctness.” This term is used to belittle any attempt to be sensitive to the diversity of values in our world. As a disclaimer, I think trying to avoid offending people is a noble endeavor. This is not because I am coerced to do so, but because I know that my opinions are not the only things that matter in the universe. As Willy Shakes so eloquently stated:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8)
I’ve been wondering what the right course of action is here. Back to the university example, maybe believing in free speech obligates them to invite speakers that a portion of the community would find distasteful. Some would lead us to believe that they are kowtowing to a feel-good everyone gets a trophy philosophy when they don’t.
There’s no limit to the smallness of the stakes, either. There’s a new issue of Charlie Hebdo; the cover features a cartoon of Muhammad standing under the words All Is Forgiven and holding a Je Suis Charlie sign. Some media outlets are showing it, some aren’t. Some critics of those outlets say that those who aren’t are pandering to this political correctness thing.
Is that not the same sort of bullying behavior about which they are complaining?
I tell you how you have to do things.
Here’s a different take, one which involves me letting you in on what a rube I am.
Before last week’s shooting, I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo. That sort of satire isn’t my cup of tea. I’ve tried the stick-in-your-eye way of being in the world, but it doesn’t suit me. It doesn’t serve one of my core beliefs that what the world needs now is more commitment to our common humanity and less division. Snark isn’t going to change the world for the better.
So, no, je ne suis pas Charlie.
If vous êtes Charlie, know this: I’m right here, defending your right to let your freak flag fly.
Because what you do with your flag really isn’t, nor should it be, up to me.