A French journalist I know wrote an article yesterday that basically brushed aside the millions of comments written over the past week about the Paris murders and claimed that really only one thing had to be said: his comment. His insight. It gave me pause. Actually, the entire frenzy has given me pause.
My colleague is generally an open man given to tolerance and dialogue, and his unusually vainglorious approach startled me.
I live very near the French border and am familiar with French mentality. They are, unlike most of the world, truly given to the vignette style and unabashedly earthy. Long have they embraced their culture, and long should they. Freedom has been their mantra for generations, even if at times they fail to see how others view what they accept as normal – as do most cultures. As does my own. As do I.
The week following the Paris murders began with a global uprising in the defence of freedom of speech. All the world stood up and took part; it was moving, powerful, and crucial for the impending debates. I have stood alongside them, in defence of the profession but also in defence of the right to free thinking, to free convening. But as the wave recedes and critical reaction swells, censor has begun to rear its ugly head. Just yesterday a man responded to a short piece I wrote, telling anyone who questions the vignette culture to fuck off. He told me to use my brain to think. My response was that Charly Hebdo would have welcomed my reaction for the simple reason that I had one. Charlie Hebdo – if this is what it’s really about – would have told me I was thinking just by critiquing them. Freedom of speech is a two way street. If nothing else, Charlie encouraged that.
After 9-11, the world did much the same thing. We joined hands against terrorism and set our sights on an even freer civilisation. An attack on the free world, the tower murders shook the very foundations of liberty. The aftershocks of sympathy and solidarity were overwhelming, but what happened in the wake of 9-11 has long sent shivers up my spine. There were years when speaking even the slightest critique of the US government was not only frowned upon, it was risky. For unexplainable reasons people were tagged terrorists, and freedom of speech was being choked and suffocated. The effects of that linger still in the unconstitutional liberties taken by the government under the Homeland Security Act.
In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on January 10, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist William Luz said that that “people are asking us to carry a symbolic weight on our shoulders that doesn’t exist in our vignettes, and which is too much for us to bear. I’m one of the people that has a hard time with that. The world sees us as human rights advocates. Freedom of speech was not murdered, people were! Just people, making drawings in their little corner of the world.”
Luz also said, bringing focus back to the reality of who Charlie Hebdo really is, that “we vomit on all these people who are suddenly our friends. We have a lot of new friends, such as the Pope, Queen Elizabeth or Poutine. It’s ridiculous.” His words came as a relief in this tense frenzy; the snap of a strained rubber band.
Contrary to what my French colleague wrote yesterday, I think it is important that we let the debates begin. We need to hear from all sides of this issue if we truly want to foster freedom of expression, of speech, and of thought. THAT is free speech. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the freedom in question is the freedom to not be killed in cold blood. Setting up a false ideal will only disappoint us in the end because it is based on a non-truth: that Charlie Hebdo is an heroic publication that defends freedom of speech. There is no question that Charlie Hebdo is a free-speech publication. But defenders of that liberty they hardly are. There is no honour in, and certainly no use for, exaggeration, no matter how well meant.
I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to expression. I support, more importantly, Charlie Hebdo’s right to assemble safely in their offices. We must focus.