We should not kill people for speech. But I am not Charlie Hebdo.

Killing people is not okay. Okay? The Venn diagram of when people kill people and when it’s okay to kill people is two almost completely unattached circles, connected only at the point where the person being killed was trying to kill someone else first and the only way to stop it was to kill them right back. That’s basically it. And even then, if I’m being honest, it’s only okay in the sense that it’s the least bad of a bunch of terrible options.

I’ve just gotta get that out of the way, since it seems that any attempt to inject a bit of nuance into conversations surrounding people killing white westerners is interpreted as a defence of the people doing the killing.

To state another thing for the record: there was absolutely nothing okay or justified about the Charlie Habdo killings yesterday. Nothing. It was a vile act. My heart goes out to the people mourning their loved ones today. Nobody deserves that.

Clear? Okay.

Within that context, let’s talk about #iamcharlie.

The first thing to to understand here: we don’t live in a world of good guys and bad guys. The fact of people being murdered horribly exists on it’s own. It doesn’t imply that the victims are people who we should emulate. A person can be a victim of a heinous crime and still have done questionable things.

Here’s a problem with #jesuischarlie: Charlie Hebdo, from what I can gather, was a publication that produced and distributed vile, racist material in the guise of satire. Unlike any satire worth the name, it punched down at already-marginalised minorities in an environment that just encouraged an intensification of preexisting anti-Muslim sentiment.

Muslims in the West are disproportionally targeted for abuse and attacks, as are people perceived to be Muslim- normally due to their names and the colour of their skin. There’s an ugly strain of racism running through so much discourse that puts itself up as “just criticising Islam”, that you can’t ignore. There’s a lack of nuance to how we talk about Islam, as well. People talk about something called the “western world” juxtaposed against the “Islamic world”, as if these are two entirely separate and self-contained things, ignoring the fact that there is and has always been both massive diversity within, and massive mixing between, Islamic and Christian cultures the world over.

Also? I strongly believe that if you want to tackle extremism, the way to do it isn’t to further alienate people who your society has already been marginalising.

This is what Charlie Hebdo was doing.

We can condemn murdering people without valorising victims.

I don’t want a response to murder that punches down. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, at least three (at the time I’m writing this) French mosques have been attacked in ‘retaliation’. That is not okay.

It is also not okay to respond to the murder of people who were doing problematic things by repeating the worst things that they did.

When you say “I am Charlie Hebdo” and repost their racist, islamophobic (and most importantly inaccurate) cartoons, you’re not standing up for freedom of speech. You’re valorising hate speech and bullying of oppressed groups.

We don’t have to be Charlie Hebdo, or to repost their work, to condemn utterly the actions of their murderers. We are not Tinkerbell, only able to feel one thing at a time. If our response is to mean anything other than self-congratulatory grandstanding, we have to take into account that terrible, undeserved things happen to people to who did fucked-up things. We have to hold that seeming-contradiction and understand that it is not so.

We don’t have a choice between being Charlie Hebdo or the people who killed there. We don’t have to respond to attacks on freedom of speech by saying that all speech is okay simply because it was said. We don’t have to ignore the context in which violence- be it physical or otherwise- happens in order to condemn it.

I am not Charlie Hebdo.

I deeply value my right to speak more or less as I please. I value the privilege of the platform I have to speak on. I am aware that that right and privilege comes with incredible responsibilities to be thoughtful and accurate, as far as I can to help more than I harm, and to be receptive- within reason, since this is the internet after all- to critique.

It is possible to value one’s rights and simultaneously to refuse to support the abuse of those rights. And it is possible to refuse to support the abuse of a right, while simultaneously condemning utterly, entirely and without reservation those who would respond to that abuse with murder.

It’s more than possible. If we’re to actually make anything better, it’s essential.

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We should not kill people for speech. But I am not Charlie Hebdo.

40 thoughts on “We should not kill people for speech. But I am not Charlie Hebdo.

  1. 2

    Hello from Paris here. I just created an account to post this: before giving your opinion about whether Charlie Hebdo was racist, did you try reading it once, or do you base your opinion only on the blurred cartoons shown on American networks?

    Charlie was definitely not racist. In particular, I do not remember seeing one racist cartoon from any of the five victim cartoonists, either in Charlie Hebdo or anywhere else (all five of them drew for several newspapers). All of them took great care that all of their cartoons were not anti-muslim but anti-integrist. By the way, they drew their cartoons against all flavours of integrists, and probably more often the Catholics.

    There are in France some outspoken racist and crypto-racist voices. Interestingly enough, these were not targeted by the killers, are they are de facto allies. (I’m not implying that they should be killed, either!). On the contrary, go find a French-speaking friend and watch an interview of Cabu (he was a bit of a “star” cartoonist, so he gave several) or Wolinski: you will be convinced that they were about the nicest guys in the world. Charlie did also make cartoons against these true racists. In killing these cartoonists, the gunmen tried to silence an *antiracist* voice.

    Je suis Charlie, (et la liberté d’expression ne s’use que si l’on ne s’en sert pas).

  2. 3

    Saying #JeSuisCharlie doesn’t mean you agree with anything at all that was published by the magazine. It simply means that there are people out there willing to kill you for exercising your right to free speech, regardless of what you use that free speech for, and that makes us all potential victims, just like the victims at Charlie Hebdo.

      1. What I meant was that when you say “I am Charlie”, you are identifying with Charlie Hebdo as a victim of those who want to silence free speech, and not with what Charlie Hebdo published. Having said that, you would certainly identify also with what it published if you are an anti-racism atheist who criticises religious dogma and oppression, because that’s exactly the kind of material the magazine published, unlike what the OP describes.

    1. 3.2

      See, I think that saying #jesuischarlie is saying that you identify with what Charlie Hebdo published. And what I’m looking for is a way to express strongly my views that nobody should be killed for saying things, without necessarily having to stand by the actual words being said.

      The point isn’t to say that CH has this perspective or that, as far as I’m concerned. What worries me a lot is that we don’t seem to have a way to say “I am absolutely against people being killed for saying things that I am profoundly uncomfortable with”.

      1. I think that saying #jesuischarlie is saying that you identify with what Charlie Hebdo published

        Except it is not. If you had bothered to look for how the hashtag came about, you’d realise that it means you identify with them as victims of those trying to silence free speech. I have seen a brief discussion on French TV news that explained just that! I have many muslim friends who used the hashtag despite finding the depiction of Muhammed inappropriate for them. That alone should tell you something.

  3. 4

    I think Voltaire said it rather well: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”
    As he said “I do not agree with what you have to say.”

    It’s one thing to say I stand with Charlie Hebdo because I, as an occasionally annoying person myself, do not wish it to be open season on annoying people. It would be another if I bought a subscription to Charlie Hebdo, which, I admit, was my first reaction.

    Christopher Hitchens once said that it’s the unpopular voice that most needs to be heard; it may be one of the handful of things he was really right about.

    1. 4.1

      Actually, that was Evelyn Hall writing about Voltaire, not Voltaire himself. Common misconception 🙂

      I think there’s a difference between saying “I stand with Charlie Hebdo” and “I am Charlie Hebdo”. Standing on the defence of victims of violence is a no-brainer. Saying that that means we now become them.. it feels unnecessary to me.

      And I am, of course, right there with ya on defending the right to be annoying. Especially right now when I seem to have done rather a lot of that with this post. None of us should be fearful of expressing ourselves.

      1. Again, you have misinterpreted the meaning of the hashtag, much in the same way you have misinterpreted the magazine’s publications. I doubt, however, this will make any difference to your discourse from what I have been reading so far.

  4. 5

    Absolutely nailed it, I wrote a similar thing but it rather academic and about 4 pages long discussing the ways that they journalism is degraded by people voicing absolute disrespect for others and hiding under labels of satirism and undeserved protection of the media and free speech.

    I also wrote of the strange principle that bullying and hate speech are frowned upon in USA, but that it is ironic to martyrize the picking of fights with the harassed people who react as expected to fight or flight response induced by creating a propagandized hostile environment.

    1. 5.1

      people voicing absolute disrespect for others and hiding under labels of satirism and undeserved protection of the media and free speech

      That’s it, isn’t it? There’s a responsibility to having a platform. Publishing words that thousands of people will read gives you the potential to influence both opinions and actions. It’s not something to be taken lightly.

  5. 7

    totally ignorant article with zero understanding of Charlie Hebdo, or French Culture. You don’t know what she is talking about. Charlie Hebdo never singled out Muslims in any way but attacked every religion, every politician alike. There is too much in the article that is uninformed to even go into. Try doing some research before mouthing off

    1. 9.1

      Did I ever say it was?

      This post isn’t about the murders. This post is about how we respond to those.

      Also, please do not equate oppressed minorities with privileged groups thx.

  6. 10

    “vile, racist material in the guise of satire”.
    Do you believe that satirising religion is racist? I’m sorry, I don’t see the logic.
    Criticising/satirising (whatever you want to call it) a religion or ideology is not racist. The cartoon is mocking islam, not all muslims.
    It is lazy simply to brandish this as racist and islamophobic.
    Charlie Hebdo have published some highly controversial and dubious things in the past, some of which have offended many people. However, the magazine is actually very anti-racist and has a history of poking fun at every religion. We cannot make special allowances for one religion just because we are scared of how people who follow that religion might react.
    No religion should demand that everyone respect it. Why should I? I think organised religion is utterly delusional, and feel that believing in things for which there is absolutely no evidence, is a sign of intellectual deficiency. That is just my opinion though, and I would defend to the last, someone’s right to hold any belief they like, no matter how crazy I think it is.
    I am not a muslim, so don’t expect me to play by those rules. If that means I want to make fun of muhammad, the pope or the chief rabbi, then I damn well will.
    Nobody has the right not to be offended.

    1. 10.1

      I haven’t actually expressed any of the things that you’re assuming I did, you know.

      I don’t think that people should make special allowances for one religion out of fear. Absolutely not.

      It is the case, however, that people should acknowledge the ways that their society includes or marginalises other groups of people, and the ways that our speech contributes to those things.

  7. 11

    I’m disappointed you think Charlie Hebdo is a racist publication, Aoife. Really, you are off base. I’ve read it several times on visits to Paris, since the cartoon controversy kicked off, and have never found any of their satirical depictions of religion to be racist. Viciously anti-Islamism, and anti all religions, totally irreverent, sometimes tasteless, but not racist. Not Islampophobic. Never suggesting all Muslims, or Catholics, or Jews, or any other group, are to be mocked for who they are. Only that religious beliefs and extremist acts should be ridiculed. In fact, anti-racism and a belief in equality and social justice – and freedom of speech for all people – were founding principles of Charlie Hebdo.

    For anyone interested, here is a somewhat different perspective: http://saltycurrent.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/tragedy-at-charlie-hebdo.html

  8. 12

    I’ve spent quite a while going through Charlie’s caricatures in order to educate myself and be more reasonable. I personally did not find their satir that much entertaining and meaningful – but it is just a personal opininon. I agree that they are attacking all religions with clear focus against christianity and islam – since, i guess, those two make most space for the public dialogue in France and as any other media Charlie was using hot issues to raise their ratings. From the other hand, I think that we are missing one very important point – it is the context. We all know that France is in top 5 islamophobic states in Europe where the situation is already quite fragile. With or without Charlie. In my personal opinion, Charlie did cross the line, but what happened is more complicated than response from the opressed muslim community. It was a political action that is quite easy and comfy to be justified with islamic response. whether it was ISIS or any other radical islamic organization, it does not represent the muslim community of France. But what they did will have clear consequences for drastic increase of islamophobic attitudes all around Europe. And yes, nobody should be killed for what he or she has said or drawn. Yes, journalists have higher freedoms in terms of contributing to the democratic values and pluralistic discussions, but yet they also have higher responsibilities and should act within the media ethics – media is truly shaping the society today and a word/picture published by a famous edition in a fragile social context might have dramatic consequences.

    1. 12.1

      “We all know that France is in top 5 islamophobic states”

      Source? Measure?

      If by this you mean the polling scores of the far right, then maybe. But in this case, Charlie was the wrong target. This newspaper is as remote from the far right (and the “stinking right”, i.e. the still-in-the-closet far right of Zemmour and Sarkozy) as you can get. And the French muslims are also, by some other measures (for example language mastery, education, religious attendance) amongst the most secular in the world, and the best integrated in Europe (even though this is not a path of roses).

      Here is an explanation of some of Charlie’s more controversial cartoons and why they are throroughly anti-racist. The authors actually made quite a point of it – for example, they are one of the few titles in the French press repeating that most jihad victims are Muslims.

  9. 13

    […] People have posted claiming that CH “was a publication that produced and distributed vile, racist material in the guise of satire. Unlike any satire worth the name, it punched down at already-marginalised minorities in an environment that just encouraged an intensification of preexisting anti-Muslim sentiment,” and that “When you say “I am Charlie Hebdo” and repost their racist, islamophobic (and most importantly inaccurate) cartoons, you’re not standing up for freedom of speech. You’re valorising hate speech and bullying of oppressed groups.” They’ve linked at FTB to posts calling the people at CH “a bunch of racist, sexist, shit-stain hacks” based on a few images with no context. […]

  10. 14

    I think the ‘Je Suis Ahmed’ hashtag thing is perhaps better – after Ahmed Merabet one of the two murdered police officers who were masacred alongside the cartoonists, editor and janitor of the iconoclastic sometimes offensive Charlie Hebdo publication :

    ” I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop.
    Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. ” -Dyab Abou Jahjah.

    Found about & first saw via Beatrice commenter on the Pharyngula’ blog.

    See : http://www.vox.com/2015/1/9/7521151/charlie-hebdo-jesuisahmed

  11. 15

    Maybe next time you decide to denounce the victims of a terrorist massacre as racists and Islamaphobes, you’ll do little research first. You couldn’t be more dead wrong about Charlie Hebdo.

    This post is both ignorant and offensive. I used to love FTB, but clearly it’s gone to the dogs since my last visit if they let you in.

  12. 16

    There’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot recently which I thought might be some ancient pearl of wisdom, but which Google tells me comes from Game of Thrones: “nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts”.
    A disappointing but entirely predictable aspect of this atrocity has been the response by so many well-meaning liberal types who want to get the murders “out of the way” before jumping on their hobby-horse and criticising the victims, mostly for racism but sexism often gets a look in too.
    The fact that the most famous victims in this case are older white men should make no difference. But you “do not equate oppressed minorities with privileged groups” so it makes a difference to you.
    The fact that those men had a decades-long history of fighting for the rights of immigrants and minorities, of “punching up” against the state, against religious leaders and particularly against the Front National should make a difference. But if you hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo before Wednesday, you might not know any of that. You might judge them on a selected fraction of their output, deliberately taken out of context; on “what [you] can gather” in a day and a half from a biased subset of sources.
    You recognise that you have a responsibility to be thoughtful and accurate, even as you repeat baseless slurs against people who spent decades fighting against everything you’re accusing them of. Shame on you!

    Moi, je suis Charlie.

      1. Aoife, I didn’t ignore what you wrote. In fact, I quoted you directly several times. True, I didn’t deal with everything you wrote, only your disappointing and unsubstantiated accusations of racism, hate speech. Islamophobia and bullying against the staff of Charlie Hebdo but that was the bulk of your post.
        I certainly didn’t insinuate that you were trying to justify murder. It’s obvious to me that you weren’t and I don’t know how you came to the conclusion that I was from what I wrote. I’m not the sort to insinuate. If I thought you were trying to justify murder, you’d better believe I’d say so.
        What I do think you were doing – intentionally or not – was trivialising the murders, quickly getting them “out of the way” so you could talk about your preferred issue: the supposed feelings of “oppressed groups”. To be fair to you, you spent a bit more time saying “killing is really bad” than many other commentators which I guess is commendable, but I wish you’d spent more of the time actually researching the victims of this atrocity before rushing to condemn them.
        And “Cool story, bro” is condescending and dismissive. You’re capable of better.

        1. Okay, I’ll grant you that I was dismissive in that comment.

          However, I don’t know if it’s possible to emphasise more than I did that I’m not trivialising the murders. I’m horrified by them. And in a way that is by no means equal to that horror, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the assumption that to be horrified by people being killed means I have to be allying myself uncritically with the work that the victims did.

          I want a way to do the former that doesn’t require the latter. And I have done a lot of reading in the past few days (and shutting the hell up between then and now was deliberate too- I didn’t want to just mouth off on this one) and I’m still deeply uncomfortable with Charlie Hebdo’s tactics. Which doesn’t for a second imply that I think there is an ounce of justification for murdering people who worked there. But it does mean that I need ways to express that that aren’t #jesuischarlie.

  13. 20

    that was Evelyn Hall writing about Voltaire, not Voltaire himself

    OMG do you mean the internet haz mistakens?!

    Thanks for the update; I’ll be more careful with that in the future. Quoting Voltaire is notoriously dangerous and complicated. Mostly because he said so damn much, and in terms of quotability a lot of it is positively Shakespearaean. Trying to get from random Voltaire quip to the original source is impossible unless you have a Voltaire scholar handy (and even then!) 🙁 I remember a bunch of years ago, reading Will Durant’s book on Voltaire, there was a quip from him about how governments cannot survive long once they engage in secret diplomacy, and no reference. So I spent a week attacking various entries in the philosophical dictionary, and eventually gave up when my brain couldn’t take any more.

    1. 20.1

      In fairness, I’ve paid very little attention to Voltaire in my time (especially in the last decade or so) so basically the one tidbit of information I have on him is that he didn’t actually say that thing everyone quotes all the time.

      …on the other hand, it did refer to his views, so I may be the tweeensiest bit pedantic when I point that out.

  14. 22

    I was somewhat familiar with Charlie Hebdo before the attacks–I lived in Belgium for a year and followed les bandes dessinées at the time, and I also recall the bombing attack on the CH offices a few years ago, and CH’s response covers. That CH traffics in racist stereotypes should not be controversial. They did and do and will continue to do so. That they did so with the goal of mocking racists doesn’t mean that the racism of the stereotypes gets erased. Hipster racism is still racism. Racism from lefty types is still racism. And, there is also the plain fact that removing those images from their context in French politics and republishing uncritically in English-speaking media is DEFINITELY racist, inasmuch as it supports, rather than challenges, the prevailing atmosphere of racial division and inequality.

    None of that means anyone deserves to get killed for publishing racist cartoons. You can disagree that they were racist if you like, but stop lying and try to cope with the fact that seeing the racism and not wanting to repeat it and proliferate does not mean that one is on board with the killing of cartoonists. I know of two people who have stated in plain terms that they think that the cartoonists brought the attacks upon themselves with their cartoons: Bill Donahue and that Choudary guy who somehow got an article in USA Today. I urge all the commenters who are aghast at the presumed victim-blaming of the cartoonists for their murders to take their chastisement and apply it to the correct targets.

  15. 23

    […] We should not kill people for speech. But I am not Charlie Hebdo.  “It is possible to value one’s rights and simultaneously to refuse to support the abuse of those rights. And it is possible to refuse to support the abuse of a right, while simultaneously condemning utterly, entirely and without reservation those who would respond to that abuse with murder. It’s more than possible. If we’re to actually make anything better, it’s essential.” […]

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