Friday, January 09, 2015

"Je suis Charlie" - Unless I choose not to be.

I've thought a lot about whether to blog on the subject of the brutal murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and the police officers who tried to protect them.  A crime such as that is so obviously evil that there doesn't seem much more to say than to just condemn it outright.  But the specifics of this latest terrorist outrage, being such a direct attack on freedom of expression, have provoked much emotive and thoughtful commentary on the complex issues of freedom, religion and fear.  I may not be adding much to that debate, but it prompted me to examine my own reaction.

In response to the attack, many have posted examples of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons as an act of defiance.  I genuinely admired that sentiment, and the sight of Londoners gathering in Trafalgar Square in a spontaneous show of solidarity was profoundly moving.  I would have been there too if I could.  But though I used the "#JeSuisCharlie" hashtag and expressed my support, I chose not to retweet or share any cartoons myself.  Why not?  I've thought a lot about that, and I think I understand my hesitancy. It wasn't just fear (to which Dan Hodges boldly confessed in his own case), but perhaps also a sense of not wanting to be provoked to do something I wouldn't normally do.

Of course, the whole point of an act of defiance (or tribute) is that it is symbolic.  You may never have heard of the magazine or seen its cartoons, but by reposting them, you are making an important point: Violence will not stop us from expressing ourselves.  That is a noble idea.  But as I've seen several people noting in the days since the attack, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were notably crude and offensive, and would be judged by many (not just pseudo-religious killers) to be in bad taste.  From those I've seen, they're not the sort of thing I would "Like" or share on social media in ordinary times.

Call me a wimp, but I generally flinch from things which are clearly designed to offend others in a provocative way, as the most biting satire inevitably does.  Just as with a shockingly rude comment or tasteless joke, it provokes in me a sharp intake of breath and a muttered "that's not very nice."   I often say I wish people could be a bit nicer to each other in politics, and I apply that to life generally. But, crucially, I also believe emphatically in freedom of expression.

I accept that freedom of expression means the freedom to offend me, and anyone else.  The freedom to write rude things about people, and to draw crude cartoons of them is the same as my freedom to inhale deeply and say I think that's a bit much, or that I don't find it very funny.  I believe freedom of expression should be used responsibly, and in a way that shows respect for others.  But the fact others can choose to disregard such restraint is how I know I am free.

For example, I find much partisan political debate puerile, depressing, and personally unkind.  I roll my eyes and deplore a lot of the behaviour at Prime Minister's Questions.  But I would never argue that the weekly circus be abolished.   The fact the leader of our country can be taunted, mocked and insulted to his face by our elected representatives every week is symbolically important.  It's not pretty to watch, but the fact it happens should reassure us.

In the same way, the fact a magazine like Charlie Hebdo can exist is more important than whether we happen to approve of its content.  This is hardly an original or complicated thought, and is often summed up in the phrase wrongly attributed to Voltaire:  "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  Wednesday's murderous attack demonstrated the potency of those words in a chillingly literal way. particularly when one of the policemen killed was revealed to be a Muslim, who gave his life defending the right of others to mock his religion.

The question of whether news organisations and people in general should now unite in reproducing the cartoons is not simple.  There is plainly the very real fear that doing so places yet more people in danger of attack.  And there might also be a suspicion that we are to some extent being manipulated by the terrorists into doing just that, to provide them with as perverted a justification for their next atrocity as they have used for the last.  But we should also ask ourselves how we would respond if the attack had been on, say, the offices and staff of a pornographic magazine.  Would we feel obliged to demonstrate our defiance by sharing graphic images?  I suspect not, but our defence of their freedom of expression in the face of violent intimidation should be as strong.

To me, declaring "Je suis Charlie" is not to agree with the editorial line for which the magazine stands.  It represents the fact that if I wanted, I or anyone else could express myself as they do.  I choose not to. But that's freedom.

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