I write this article today in the afterglow of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine, as well as the sieges that occurred in the aftermath around Paris. And let me state at the outset that I clearly think terrorism is awful, tragic and sadly inevitable for the foreseeable future. I in no way condone violence against anyone, but most particularly for something as inconsequential as being offended by something they say or write.
However, having said that, and in light of the worldwide response to the Paris attacks, I wanted to question the idea behind people voicing their anger at this bloodshed with signs saying Je Suis Charlie (I am Charlie).
I am a supporter of free speech. Most people are. For me, free speech means being able to say, write or in this case, draw, whatever you want. I would draw the line at something designed to promote violent crime such as a paedophile recruitment notice or other such things. Equally, with that right to say what you want comes the responsibility to acknowledge that your free speech may offend some people. (Again, I reiterate that I do not condone murder as a response to free speech you do not like).
The artists and writers of Charlie Hebdo therefore can draw whatever they want and can offend whomever they want and, even if I disagree with what they draw, for me to be consistent with my beliefs, I have to agree with their right to do so. I stress here that I do not need to agree with their content. Speaking more broadly about other publications, just because you have the right to be racist, bigoted, homophobic or anti-Semitic does not mean you should be. Just because you can offend someone does not mean you should.
Satire serves a purpose to shine a light on absurdities and incidents in the civic square that need a light shone on them. When it works, it’s very effective but when it does not work, you just look like an arsehole. Or a bigot. Or a racist. Or an anti-Semite. In the rush to do something about terrorism, and I understand that rush, people are metaphorically standing next to Charlie Hebdo and saying, “yep, I’m with these guys. I am Charlie Hebdo!!”.
If our only response to terrorism is to passionately identify with their targets, regardless of the beliefs of those targets, then surely the Muslims of the world could do with us passionately identifying with them since there have been far more Muslim victims of Jihadist terrorism than non-Muslim. The solutions to terrorism are as complicated and nuanced as their cause. Simply jumping on a social media campaign to assuage our feelings of helplessness seems somewhat lacking and I think Charlie Hebdo would have had some choice words for those who suddenly found them acceptable who in the past did not.