Since the horrific attack on the offices of Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie has become hugely popular as a representation of solidarity and support in France’s time of grief. While the hashtag is certainly a catchy way for people to express their outrage, as the initial surge of support gives way to more complex analysis, the question emerges: Are we really Charlie?
If nothing else, the one thing we must take away from what happened is that the incredible power that comes with the right to free speech does not come without certain responsibilities. This understanding has been largely absent from the discussion so far. As is often a problem with online activism, distilling a complicated issue into a tiny hashtag does not make for a productive debate. In fact, blindly identifying with Charlie Hebdo can be viewed as a gross oversimplification of the situation, hindering the possibility of learning from this tragedy.
Before we go any further, let us be clear: absolutely nothing could justify an attack such as this. There is no rationality for responding to media with murder. But that does not mean we should blindly praise Charlie Hebdo or exempt the magazine from any form of criticism because of what occurred: Endorse free speech, not how they were practicing it. We are in dire need of a nuanced international discussion about the meaning of the right to free speech in our modern, media-driven world.
Free speech is enshrined by law and is a central tenet of democracy. However, it is up to the individual to be aware of the broader meaning of what he or she is saying. Charlie Hebdo published racist cartoons. Is it technically acceptable to publish offensive and bigoted content, even through satire? Well, yes. But it’s far from heroic. Satire is at its best when it critiques those in positions of power, not when it maliciously attacks minority groups that are already subject to excessive criticism at every turn. To exercise free speech with reckless abandon by publishing openly Islamophobic material under the guise of “satire” is dangerous for society, and it ignores the sobering influence of media.
But to fall whim to those who wish to suppress that speech is just as dangerous. Free speech, even when it is offensive, must be protected at all costs.
One could spend hours arguing whether or not Charlie Hebdo is indeed a source of legitimate satire or simply racist, shock-value media. Regardless of how harmful it may be, offensive speech deserves to be protected. But this does not mean that it should be encouraged, or lauded as heroic.
If we want to defend the right to free speech at all costs – and we certainly should – we must also acknowledge our own duty to apply that right evenly and fairly. With the legal right to free speech comes the ethical responsibility to consider the influence that that free speech can have on a society. So far, the debate surrounding #JeSuisCharlie has failed to address this, instead painting this issue as quite black and white.
Situations such as this have no right answer, and can cause vacillations on right and wrong, on acceptable and intolerable. But certain things are clear: Violence is never admissible, free speech must be protected and exercised with a sense of responsibility, and although we may not all be Charlie, we are all in mourning.