I want to talk about the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris.
I’ve agonised over it, talking myself out of it and back into it a few times now. I’ve seen so much written over the last few days (some calm and measured, others furious and vitriolic) and I’ve decided that (despite my better judgement) I want to add my voice to that ever-growing cacophony. I know that I’ll probably draw criticism for over-simplifying things, but I just felt the need to say something.
Charlie Hebdo is a French weekly satirical newspaper and I have to admit that before the events this week, I had never even heard of it. I expect this is the same for most people outside of France. A quick check on Wikipedia sheds some light on the paper and its history. It describes Charlie Hebdo as left-wing, with a history of satirical attacks in all directions. By its very nature, the paper will have offended a lot of people (this should go without saying as satire is always attacking the beliefs or opinions of someone) but for it to have been attacked twice (firebombed in 2011 and the shooting this week) is really quite shocking. Viz and Private Eye have been known to offend regularly in the UK, but neither of them have ever been attacked like this.
The most surprising thing to me in the aftermath of all of this, however, is the position of what appears to be a growing number of people on the internet. That position seems to be “Charlie Hebdo is a racist newspaper so let’s not start calling them heroes…” In the wake of something terrible, victims are regularly referred to as ‘heroes’. Not necessarily because they died heroically, but mostly just because they died. Playing down the grief because perhaps they weren’t all lovely people is ridiculous. The paper was offensive, that much is accepted as true by all parties. But the issue isn’t whether or not they even WERE racists. They were murdered in their offices. The police officers in the street were killed trying to protect their community. Mercilessly gunned down by people claiming to have been insulted by cartoons and harsh words. You don’t get to kill people because you don’t like what someone has said, not even if they’ve REALLY hurt your feelings. Likewise, the things that those people wrote/drew/did should not lessen the grief felt by those left behind. To say that “we shouldn’t start excusing what they said just because of a shooting” is just stupid. People are united in sadness for the victims and condemnation for the attackers. If you have a problem with the content of the paper, you could at least wait until the bodies are cold. Otherwise you are just grandstanding, using the victims as your stage.
And now, after all of this has happened, people are proclaiming ‘Je suis Charlie’. The common thread between those using this statement is that freedom of speech and freedom of expression should be fundamental rights for all of us. The response I have seen to this is “I hope everyone isn’t Charlie, because if they are, then they are all racists too.” I really don’t believe that this is what ‘Je suis Charlie’ means. People aren’t saying that they embody and are represented by everything Charlie Hebdo ever published. Nor are they saying that what was published should be free from criticism. What they are saying is that we accept everyone’s right to an opinion, no matter how much it may differ from our own or how much it may upset somebody else. Charlie Hebdo’s opinion may not be one that you share, you may not even like it, but you should allow them to have that opinion. That is their freedom. Everyone is offended by something and it is your right to be offended. Things that you believe or say may offend me, but that is YOUR right to believe and to say them. You see where I’m going with this?
Should Charlie Hebdo be free from all criticism in their quest to offend all cultures and religions with their use of heavily barbed satire? Of course not, but the victims of January 7th sure as hell didn’t deserve to die for it.