On 7th January 2015, eleven people died in an attack on Charlie Hebdo , a satirical publication based in Paris. That day, Twitter was ablaze with the mantra #JeSuisCharlie. However, it seemed few people had thought through what the sentiment really implied.
Charlie Hebdo is a fairly unpleasant publication that frequently uses racially charged imagery as a battering ram for its vicious brand of political satire. In particular, it recurrently caricatures the Prophet Muhammad. For the secular mainstream, it may be difficult to imagine what the experience of having your sacred religious icon defiled might be like. When we do pay attention to Muslims speaking on this issue, they tell us it is a deeply distressing experience for many members of their community.
The defense of Charlie Hebdo was framed as a defense of the principle of free speech. To be free, one allegedly must be allowed to draw and publish whichever images he or she desires.
However, the collective actions of citizens restrict free speech all the time. This is because most of the platforms on which people express their speech are, in some sense, public property. For example, media outlets effectively censor journalists, commentators, and television personalities because they want to avoid the negative publicity that accompanies offensive statements. Similarly, political parties must temper their speech in order to attract votes from their populus. In some respects, this is a very positive phenomenon; citizens shouldn’t have to endure speech they find hateful and deeply upsetting.
The principle of freedom of speech does not entitle someone to say whatever they want on whichever platform they choose without being their speech being censured by others. Their speech affects those who have to hear the speech and live in the world the speech creates. Therefore, those affected are entitled to purchase and vote for the speech they prefer. These forms of collective decision-making are reasonably democratic, as everyone gets to participate in the process by which we decide which speech we do and do not value. This democratic process is worth defending from terrorism.
#JeSuisCharlie is not a defense of this democratic process; it is merely a defense of a particular instance of speech. #JeSuisCharlie tells us to endorse, purchase, and vote for Charlie Hebdo’s speech. This worked extremely well. Media outlets felt obliged to republish the cartoons. The edition following the attack on the magazine was the highest selling in the magazine’s history.
Thus the fight for democratic free speech became a contest for power. In the public imagination, the act of terror against Charlie Hebdo represented a foreigner’s attempt to regulate the kind of speech that white people are allowed to engage in. This was unacceptable. Their response was to assert the ultimate dominance of white, secular liberalism. Ignoring Muslim objections to Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Muhammad was transformed from a senseless act of race baiting to a valiant act of defiance against terrorism.
Ironically, this represents almost the precise opposite of healthy free speech. A better world would be one in which we gave Muslims participation in the democratic discussion about speech and took their objections to the depictions of Muhammad seriously. Instead, we live in a world where we privilege the freedom of a white man to draw offensive cartoons over that of his Muslim counterpart to meaningfully object. In pressuring newspapers to saturate the airwaves with reproductions of these offensive cartoons, we are virtually denying Muslims the liberty of preventing themselves from seeing acts of speech they find to be deeply upsetting.
I would like to live in a world where Charlie Hebdo is threatened by a consumer boycott, rather than by terrorism. Sympathy and grief should not cloud our judgment with regard to what kind of speech we find acceptable.
That is why #JeNeSuisPasCharlie.