Over the past week I’ve read numerous articles and had several conversations with friends about the terrible attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which extremists killed both staff and those protecting them. It’s the sort of issue I’d normally steer away from discussing here. After all, this is a blog about writing and about imaginary worlds, not real politics.
But I’m someone who makes his living off words, to whom freedom of expression is vital both in principle and in practice. So today I’m going to talk about reactions to this attack, attempts to put them in context, and how I feel about all this.
The initially public reaction to the attack was one of shock and horror. But as the days passed, people have quite rightly tried to look at this in context. This was a terrible event and an attack on free speech. Worse atrocities happen on a regular basis, and stir far less of a reaction from us in the west. Free speech is attacked from many angles, and we don’t often rise in outrage. I agree with the people making this point – we should be outraged about those things too. We should be as focused on them as on this.
It’s also important to put this in context and understand what led the attackers to do what they did. There are huge issues to consider around disenfranchisement and what’s pushing people to join extremist groups. Why they felt a need, and had the opportunity, to lash out in such a horrifying way. If we don’t consider that context, then we invite more of the same. Because this attack wasn’t about Charlie Hebdo and what it said. It was about the attackers and where they were coming from. They were going to lash out at someone, and this magazine was unfortunate to be the target they picked.
Examining the victims
But there is a contextual point people have raised that’s more problematic, and that’s the material published in Charlie Hebdo.
I want to be really clear on this. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t criticise this magazine, that the attack on its offices makes it some kind of martyr or sacred cow. As far as I’m concerned, everybody and everything should be open to critique, not least a small print French magazine that set out to provoke people with its cartoons. The free speech from which that magazine benefits extends to its critics as well.
But to me, that’s a separate issue from discussing this attack.
When people have critiqued the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo over the past week, it’s been to point out that they are offensive to some people, that they were designed to draw ire. The implication seems to be that they shouldn’t have done this, that if they’d been better people this wouldn’t have happened. The same critique is implicit in attempts to shift attention onto the Muslim policeman who died in the attack. His death is every bit as tragic as the cartoonists, every bit as worthy of mourning. Maybe he was somehow a better person than the others, but even if he was that doesn’t matter. We should be no more or less outraged for the other victims than we are for him. None of them did anything that justifies their murder.
They were all victims. Talking about their character starts us down a slippery slope towards victim blaming.
We all have things that we find offensive. But while there are reasons some of those things should not be said, the fact that we find them offensive is never a good reason. Offence is our reaction, not the other person’s action.
Fellow writer Victoria Randall and I have very different views on certain issues, issues which she addresses in her fiction. We stand in such different places that, if it came down to it, we would each accept imprisonment in defence of completely opposing principles. But if Victoria expresses an opinion on this that I find offensive, and I respond by going to her house and punching her in the face, does her opinion make my behaviour any more reasonable, or the hotdog salesman I punched on my way past any more of a victim than her?
No. Of course not. In this hypothetical, she was voicing her opinion and I was being an arsehole. The nature of that opinion is beside the point.
For the record, I would never punch Victoria Randall. She’s lovely, I’m a pacifist, and I can’t afford the plane tickets to the United States.
Je Suis Charlie
So given all of this, do I stand with those saying ‘Je suis Charlie’, however problematic that reaction may be?
I do. Because in my view free speech should not be limited by the opinions or character of the speaker. Because I want us to react against all the terrible things, and if this is the one that galvanises us then that’s a start. And because to me those words are a way of saying that I will not be dictated to, that I will stand by my words even when threatened. No-one is likely to threaten violence at the things I write, but if they feel the need then they should just bring it on.
Je suis Charlie.