Early this morning, I woke to a series of WhatsApp messages from my girlfriend, who’s currently on holiday in Paris:
“Good morning.” 6:36 AM
“We’re totally safe.” 7:35 AM
“The shooting was near us, and we are fine.” 7:35 AM
I had no idea what she was talking about. I opened Google Search, tapped the “voice search” button and said “Paris shooting,” which gave me plenty of results about parachuting but no news of actual events in Paris.
Twitter illuminated what Google Search did not. Around 5:30AM ET, a group of at least two, maybe three, men stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo—a popular leftist, strongly anti-religious satirist newspaper—during the staff’s weekly editorial meeting. At the time of writing, at least twelve people are dead.
In the prerequisite class to work for my high school newspaper, The West Side Story, we extensively studied the free speech protections that exist for high school students. We took these rights seriously—in no small part because the most high profile Supreme Court case concerning these rights, Tinker v. Des Moines, originated just ninety minutes due west on Interstate-80. Our editor-in-chief kept a poster up in the newsroom with a quote attributed to Voltaire (though actually composed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) that read, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Abstractions are really great on the easy days. Not as much on days like today.
I feel my blood simmering; anger and grief are caught in my throat. This hits home not just because my girlfriend is in Paris, but because the people targeted share her line of work. It’s easy to imagine her deciding to swing by the office of a popular left-wing magazine. Just the other day, she met up with some friends who work for Slate France. These are her people, and they are under attack.
He died on his feet
We would do well to remember that just because massacres like this are so rarely actually carried out does not mean that we are not under attack. It’s easy to dismiss government claims of “disrupting” or “preventing” attacks that don’t occur—and I still believe that we should take such claims with large grains of salt—but we should not forget that absence of attacks carried out does not imply the absence of intent to attack. It’s equally easy to convince oneself that such attacks are impossible and will never actually happen:
“It just so happens I’m more likely to get run over by a bicycle in Paris than get assassinated,” says [Stephane Charbonnier], the soft-spoken editor of Charlie Hebdo, a left-leaning French satirical weekly, which since 2006 has been sued, threatened and firebombed for its sporadic publication of cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
In a 2012 interview with the French daily paper of record Le Monde, Charbonnier, or “Charb,” as he was known, said, “That may be a bit pompous what I am saying, but I prefer to die standing than live on my knees. ”
Charb is among those who died as a result of this attack.
Je Suis Charlie
The reaction has been swift. I don’t know if we’ll see a more fitting tribute than this one from David Pope:
“Je suies Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” is picking up steam on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve already seen a number of images like this popping up on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook:
Is it helpful to mock the entirety of a religion? I doubt it.
Some publications are censoring depictions of the cartoons, including the UK’s The Telegraph, New York Daily News, and the Associated Press, which announced it would “refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.”
Digital publications seem to be moving in a different direction.
The conservative digital publication Washington Free Beacon (which, on other days, revels in being labeled a “bomb thrower” by liberals) was quick to publish a number of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, under the subhead, “Publishing the cartoons that jihadist fanatics don’t want you to see.”
BuzzFeed has followed suit, publishing a listicle of “12 Striking Charlie Hebdo Front Covers,” which features plenty of offensive depictions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.
The left-leaning news explainer Vox republished a cartoon that seems relevant in light of the attack in Paris:
It will be interesting to see if a clear divide emerges between digital and print publications. I suspect it may.
Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine takes on the traditional liberal view:
The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome.
The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.
Matt Yglesias tweets at Chait (formerly of The New Republic) asking if he’d apply that principle to racist speech. [UPDATE: Yglesias penned his own response, which I find to be an improvement on Chait’s work. Link is below in “Additional Reading” section.] Max Fischer, also of Vox, makes a more compelling case:
And that is exactly why Charlie Hebdo’s “Love is stronger than hate” cover so well captures the magazine’s oft-misunderstood mission and message. Yes, the slobbery kiss between two men is surely meant to get under the skin of any conservative Muslims who are also homophobic, but so too is it an attack on the idea that Muslims or Islam are the enemy, rather than extremism and intolerance.
I’m uncomfortable with offensive speech for the sake of offensiveness alone, but it’s critical to remember that there is a difference between effective satire with purpose ala Charlie Hebdo and needless incendiary actions, like the Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Koran. Do both deserve equal protection? How do we understand or qualify motive in these cases?
Sticks and stones
When is speech no longer speech? Does speech stop when harm starts? This is unclear, given the difficulty of defining where harm begins. I have no love for religious extremists. Most of them would prefer that families like mine (i.e. families with same-sex, homosexual parents) didn’t exist. Homosexuality, of course, is punishable by imprisonment and/or death in many theocracies around the world—and was still illegal in many parts of the United States barely a decade ago.
I’d venture that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of needless agitation for agitation’s sake. The relentless mocking and derision of women, people of color, LGBTQ people and, yes, religious minorities, remains so present and destructive in day-to-day life that decent people should think carefully before opening their mouths or putting pen to paper.
Speech is itself abstract and the impact it has on individuals is abstract—or at least mental—as well, but these abstract impacts can have concrete consequences. The attack in Paris is just one example.
The night before the attack in Paris, an NAACP chapter in Colorado Springs was attacked with a makeshift explosive device. Would Western politicians or editors ever exhort journalists or cartoonists to act in such a way as not to offend white supremacists?
Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen in Ohio who killed herself shortly after Christmas, felt hopelessly trapped by the actions and words of her parents, who for religious reasons did not feel comfortable acknowledging their daughter’s transgender identity. Which is more culpable in Leelah’s suicide: her parents’ speech or Leelah’s agency? The question of agency is further complicated by the fact that, at seventeen years of age, Leelah was a minor.
Is it even fair to conflate a couple’s religious beliefs with the satiric drawings of French cartoonists? It will depend on whom you ask. There’s a thin line between bullying and satire, and that line is often drawn by something even more ethereal than speech: motivation.
We don’t know. Most immediately, I’ll be watching to see who does or does not publish uncensored Charlie Hebdon cartoons, if we hear more urgings to “exercise restraint” in the images we create, and whether or not we see people in France act in a way comparable to how many Australians reacted to the recent attack in Sydney, which is to say with grace and compassion towards nonviolent Muslims in their communities.
George Orwell wrote as the original preface for Animal Farm, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
In some situations, hearing things we do not want to hear can lead to us improving ourselves. In other situations, it can make our problems worse. I suspect that Ezra Klein is right: “this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.”
Who drew first?
In our civilization, there is a correct answer to this question.
Je Suis Charlie. •