Thoughts on #CharlieHebdo and the White Privilege of Free Speech

January 13, 2015

je-suis-charlie

Last week, two terrorists stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered twelve men and women — including journalists, editors, and first responder law enforcement — in cold blood. The suspects, later revealed to be brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, committed the heinous acts allegedly in retaliation for the magazine’s long history of disparaging cartoons that included the prophet Mohammed; the Kouachi brothers escaped the offices of Charlie Hebdo with the aid of a third suspect named Amedy Coulibaly. Two days later, the three suspects took hostages, and engaged police in multiple firefights. When the dust cleared, all three suspects were dead.

Seventeen victims had also been brutally and senselessly killed in one of Europe’s deadliest terrorist attacks in contemporary memory. They include: Charlie Hebdo editor, Stephane Charbonnier; 76-year-old cartoonist, Jean Cabut; Muslim-French police officer, Ahmed Merabet; and, many more.

The Charlie Hebdo shootings have sparked an international outcry, much of it justified anger against an unjustifiable act of terrorism. This is a viewpoint I share with nearly every public pundit who has waded into the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack: mass murder — even mass murder in the name of a political cause — is inexcusable. Period. Full stop.

Where pundits and commentators disagree, however, is in the details of this incident, and the intersection of cultural diversity versus  free speech rights.

je-ne-suis-pas-charlie

Frustratingly, what should be an important national and international conversation about political and religious tolerance has instead devolved into base factionalization. It has become increasingly impossible to discuss this incident with nuance. Instead the debate has devolved into people declaring themselves with Charlie Hebdo journalists. Anyone who raises any complexity? Those folks are siding with the terrorists.

What has become lost in the trending tweets amassing the people choosing sides — #JeSuisCharlie versus response tags #JeNeSuisPasCharlie or #JeSuisAhmed — is the fact that this incident (as with most like it) can’t be just about choosing sides. If this is a war, as Medium.com’s Asghar Bukhari declared, this is the Vietnam War: there are no square-jawed good guys and black-hatted bad guys. There are just numerous acts of amorality — large and small, and committed by everyone involved — intertwining into a seething, intractable knot that produces nothing but hatred and death.

The condemnation of the terrorist actions of the Kouachi brothers is and should be standard boilerplate on any article about the Charlie Hebdo attack; all people who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool terrorists or trolls should be assumed to — by default — be opposed to mass murder. We did not expect Norway’s Christians to condemn the actions of Anders Breivek. We did not expect America’s White community to condemn the actions of Michael Page or Timothy McVeigh. We did not expect the Korean American community to condemn the actions of Seung-Hui Cho (although some did anyways). We did not expect the entire comic fandom to condemn John Holmes. Terrorists who appropriate the beliefs of a community are not acting for that community; they are acting on behalf of their own criminal psychopathy. While I support the gathering of thousands in Paris today for an “unprecedented” rally of unity, this was a demonstration for an overtly obvious cause: opposing murder committed by terrorists. We all (should) agree that murder is wrong.

To assume that we need the Muslim community (or anyone else, for that matter) to explicitly state that they are against mass murder says something pretty damning about our implicit biases about the Muslim community and the Muslim faith. So, instead let’s just proceed with the assumption that no one needs to state that they are against deadly acts of terrorism.  Let’s just let that be a given — for everyone.

je-ne-suis-pas-charlie-francais

The more thorny quandry around Charlie Hebdo is in regard to free speech rights. When it comes to First Amendment issues, I’ve noticed a disappointing trend towards treating the issue as if is a constitutional question alone; and further that the logical counterargument to any assault on free speech is to signal amplify that speech, as loudly as we can. When we feel our speech is threatened, we enthusiastically engage in reactionary and boorish yelling that repeats whatever the offending speech was — ironically, without encouraging additional, critical viewpoints to promote actual, unfettered dialogue. As if to invite nuance into the conversation is to let the terrorists win.

Take for example last month’s Sonyhack incident (which I blogged about here): somehow, a boorish, racist and misogynistic piece of Seth Rogen and James Franco bullshit became a symbol of the American Constitution, and the film earned $15 million in sold-out limited release screenings attended by flag-waving patriots who mistake a defense of free speech rights (a position I support) with the unqualified revelry in anti-Asian stereotypes (a position I do not support).

For many of the folks in line, showing up Christmas morning was about more than watching a film, it was about making a statement.

“I really, really wanted to see it and when I saw it was coming out I bought a ticket last night and I want to exercise freedom of speech, “Jeremy Leval said.

America, fuck yeah.

america-fuck-yeah

It is naive to forget that the way we frame the free speech debate is not just about constitutional law, but also about power, politics and privilege. It should escape no one’s notice that the two most recent examples of free speech under assault that inspired national and international reactions were both forms of speech entrenched in the perpetuated marginalization and humiliation of disempowered non-White, non-Judeo-Christian communities.

“The Interview” wasn’t just about fart jokes and anti-Asian buffonery; it was an articulation of America’s Yellow Peril fears recast in “satirical” comedy. Charlie Hebdo‘s magazine covers weren’t just about taking a stand against organized religion; it was an articulation of the West’s deeply entrenched Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate (and specifically the fraught history of colonialization between France and  Algeria) recast in “satirical” cartoons. In both cases, the intended targets of the speech might be deserving of criticism — either extremist terrorists or a tyrannical government guilty of the worst violations of human rights in the world — but the stroke of the pen is also overly broad. We forget that the vast majority of those who must endure the daily consequences of Seth Rogen and Charlie Hebdo are not terrorists; they are Muslims and Asian Americans, who commit no other crime than being non-White and non-Christian in a world where the mainstream culture is both.

We do the debate an injustice when we ignore how the current debate is framed not just in the right to free speech, but in how certain speech is perceived as warranting protection because it maintains power and privilege over the disempowered and oppressed. We do the debate an injustice when we ignore that First Amendment Rights are not all equally protected in this country. We do the debate an injustice when we forget the White Privilege of American free speech.

Seth Rogen has the right to create a puerile movie reinforcing numerous stereotypes against Asian Americans — particularly women; cyberterrorism should not force his silence. Charlie Hebdo has the right to plaster their magazines with racist, apocryphal, inflammatory rhetoric that targets everyone who isn’t a French White male atheist. As offensive as it is, that is within their free speech rights.

A recent cartoon published in the Charlie Hebdo magazine depicting Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, a Black woman, as a monkey.
A recent cartoon published in the Charlie Hebdo magazine depicting Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, a Black woman, as a monkey. The comic satirizes Far Right group Rassemblement Bleu Marine for making the same comparison.

Why is it, however, that the speech we find ourselves protecting from assault is always the same kind of speech that is so intentionally damaging to disempowered communities? Why is it that the speech that originates out of marginalized groups seeking to criticize their oppression at the hands of the mainstream struggle fails to invoke the same First Amendment fervor? Why is it that rap artists who engage in creative expression over music are being sentenced to life-term jail sentences, and no First Amendment lobbyist is outraged? Where are the thousands marching to defend the free speech rights of Ferguson protesters, where the most offensive aspect of their freedom of expression involves the font choice of Comic Sans MS?

The fact of the matter is this: despite what is outlined in the First Amendment, the version of free speech that has saturated headlines this week does not reflect the sort of free speech rights enjoyed by many in this country. Not everyone enjoys unqualified protection of their free speech rights. Minorities have never had the privilege to express themselves secure in the knowledge that their right to free expression — regardless of the form it takes — will be treated as sacrosanct. We have never known what it’s like to say whatever we want, never experiencing even the faintest concern for how our speech will be received. We have always been forced to — by our status as marginalized peoples; by our own instincts of self-preservation — to be concerned about how what we say will be received. We have always been expected to temper our speech with consideration of how palatable it is for Whiteness.

All of us have the right to free speech. Not all of us enjoy the privilege of irresponsible speech.

So, #JeSuisCharlie because I support free speech unrestricted by state and federal law. Yet it is also true that #JeNeSuisPasCharlie. My speech is not — has never been — elevated as a right prioritized above all other concerns. I do not know what it’s like to be able to interpret the First Amendment as a license to asshole, unconcerned with the damage my words might cause to others. For me, free speech has always been the right to expression unrestricted by law, but necessarily governed by self-responsibility.

Further, I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps this more self-aware relationship with free speech should be our standard. Perhaps it’s time to consider that just because we have the right to be raging (racist) assholes towards one another does not mean that we should aggressively exercise that right whenever possible, and sometimes with deliberate intent to offend and oppress marginalized groups. Perhaps it’s time to consider not just the importance of our First Amendment rights, but also the powerful impact that right has on others. Perhaps we should prioritize focusing not just on expressing ourselves as loudly as possible, but also in building dialogue over the ideas contained within.

I fervently believe in the right to free speech; but I also respect the power of that right, too. In the last week, we’ve seen a lot of defense over the right to free speech. Yet we’ve also had very little conversation that respects the spirit of why that right exists in the first place: to amplify the voices of those historically disenfranchised and outside the mainstream in the pursuit of more respectful and open dialogue.

And honestly, I don’t think it’s too radical to suggest that what we  all need right now — in the wake of so much heartbreaking hatred and death — is more respect.

Read More: Trolls and Martyrdom: Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie by Arthur Chu for the Daily Beast

An earlier version of this post erroneously reported that one of the suspects was in custody. I regret the error.

  • woshiwaiguoren

    Way to spend three whole lines talking about the victims of the attacks and not mention that Jews were specifically targeted… You specifically list as targets:

    — “the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo”
    — “twelve men and women”
    — “journalists”
    — “editors”
    — “first responder law enforcement”
    — “seventeen victims”
    — “Stephane Charbonnier”
    — “Jean Cabut”
    — “Muslim-French police officer, Ahmed Merabet”
    — “many more”

    You listed ten full phrases of targets. You counted the group several times over. And you didn’t mention the fact that at least four, and maybe a fifth, were shot for being Jews. It’s either deliberate, or shamefully negligent, considering how important the choice of target is to the dynamic of the attack.

  • This post is focused more on the free speech conversation of the attack’s aftermath. If you’ll note, the description of the entire attack is, itself, very undetailed. The implication is that if you want detailed news with regard to the attack, you’re not going to be coming to a blog offering opinion on First Amendment issues for that.

    Also, at the time of its writing, there was limited mainstream coverage of the attacker’s motives with regard to victim choice (at the time of my current Google search, only one reputable news source — the Daily Mail — is really even on-the-record covering the attack from this aspect). Alkso, since the attackers were acting out an extremist, fundamentalist interpretation of a holy war as self-appointed actors for an Islamic terrorist organization which has stated that one of its primary objectives is to eradicate Israel from the Middle East theatre, I think the possibility that these terrorists may have targeted Jewish victims is sort of implied. I do not, actually, think that covering this aspect of the attacks — which requires me to cite audiovisual material created by a terrorist in order to advance his message (something I won’t do on this blog, because I think that is doing exactly what the terrorist attack was designed to do) — is necessary to add to the heinousness of this crime for the purposes of this post’s writing. The attacks were heinous enough without needing to delve deeply into the mindsets of these terrorists, at least not for a post that is basically about free speech.

  • woshiwaiguoren

    You plead ignorance, but the fact that a Jewish supermarket was attacked was widely reported by the 13th (the attack happened on the 9th). The specific motivations of Amedy Coulibaly were also known by this time (although they could have been inferred earlier, given the odds of him just happening to select a Jewish supermarket, and radical Islam’s history of antisemitism).

    You claim you don’t want to provide the attackers’ motivations, since that spreads their message, but you did describe their reasons for attacking Charlie Hebdo.

    You say you didn’t feel you needed to provide detail, but you mention multiple groupings of victims, and even multiple victims by name. That they killed Ahmed Merabet, for example, is also not directly important to the free speech conversation.

    It looks more like oversight on your part than deliberate erasure of Jewish victims, but the ultimate effect is the same.

  • the fact that a Jewish supermarket was attacked was widely reported by the 13th

    Yes, but the motivations for this targeting would still have to have been inferred. Victim identity is not itself sufficient to infer motive with regard to hate crimes.

    The specific motivations of Amedy Coulibaly were also known by this time

    Yes, sort of. They were in his video, but again, that doesn’t necessarily speak to the actual attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, nor was it entirely clear whether his choice of target could or should be distinguished as some sort of specific anti-Semitism that is in some way distinct from his larger fundamentalist pro-Islamic State politic.

    You claim you don’t want to provide the attackers’ motivations, since that spreads their message, but you did describe their reasons for attacking Charlie Hebdo.

    You misread this post. This post isn’t about what motivated the Kouachi brothers; to do so would be to attempt to apply reason to an irrational act. This post is about the free speech debate, and whether or not Charlie Hebdo’s covers and interior content are protected in a similar fashion as other forms of speech.

    If you go back to the post, you will see that I don’t spend any time at all on the attackers’ motives or dignifying their actions with any sort of rationale — whether it was about attempting to censor through violence offensive depictions of Mohammed; or a wrong-headed self-declared holy war on Israel and French Jews; or about unjustifiable acts of simple, cold-blooded homicide. The first three paragraphs are literally the only paragraphs about the attack itself, and they are deliberately devoid of any discussion with regard to motive; they are entirely descriptive of what transpired. Because I don’t think terrorist acts should be justified, and deep dives into motivations threaten to do just that.

    The remainder of the post is about the free speech debate that was raised by the attacks. One side argued that Charlie Hebdo was within their rights to satirize Islam; the other side (which was shared by people who also condemned pro-ISIS terrorism) argued that Charlie Hebdo’s magazine covers were insensitive and offensive to Islam. That is the context of this post. The discussion here literally has nothing to do with the motives of the attackers; I find discussion of motive about as relevant here to the heinousness of a terrorist act as it is necessary to discuss whether or not the identity of the Syrian prisoner ISIS seeks the release of warrants the murder of Japanese nationals.

    You say you didn’t feel you needed to provide detail, but you mention multiple groupings of victims, and even multiple victims by name.

    I mention three victims by name to provide names to victims so that they are not faceless; specifically I mention two of the most well-known victims within France (the editor and the most famous of the cartoonists) basically to provide a humanizing context. I mentioned Ahmed Merabet, specifically, because his identity is required preamble to the #IAmAhmed hashtag mentioned later in the post — his inclusion was structural with regard to the writing of this post.

    Frankly, it seems you are mainly upset because I wrote this post in the way that you would have written this post; instead, I wrote this post from my perspective rather than from yours. Not entirely sure what the point of doing that — beyond concern trolling — really is.

    If you want to engage this post with regard to free speech concerns, I’m happy to do that. But if you’re just dissatisfied with my word choice in the first three paragraphs of this post — which are entirely about giving a brief contextual overview of the attacks so we all know what we’re talking about — then I really don’t know what else to say to you.

  • woshiwaiguoren

    [blockquote]allegedly in retaliation for the magazine’s long history of disparaging cartoons that included the prophet Mohammed[/blockquote]

    You do speculate as to the motivations of the terrorists in that sentence. I don’t see how stating “the attacks also appear to have targeted Jews” is going any further than that.

    To clarify: I’m not saying the article should have delved deep into the antisemitic aspect of the attacks or anything. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that your background summary will devote a sentence to a group of its victims. It just seemed inappropriate that, in your three paragraphs of background, you mentioned literally all the victims–categorically or by name–except the Jews.

  • You do speculate as to the motivations of the terrorists in that sentence. I don’t see how stating “the attacks also appear to have targeted Jews” is going any further than that.

    The important word in that sentence is “allegedly”, and again that sentence exists entirely to provide preamble and transitional information for the main purpose of this post — the free speech conversation.

    Specifically, I am foreshadowing those who speculated upon motive to drive the free speech argument with regard to Charlie Hebdo having published offensive comics. Again, this was an entirely structural word choice with regard to the writing of this post, and in no way reflected the actual ideas of the Kouachi brothers or my own speculation as to their motives.

    It just seemed inappropriate that, in your three paragraphs of background, you mentioned literally all the victims–categorically or by name–except the Jews.

    Errr… I listed three by name (two as the “most prominent”, one for context of a subsequent hashtag), and then gave the total death count. So yes, I did mention “categorically”, all the victims, including the Jewish ones. I just didn’t specifically highlight and distinguish some as, y’know, “the Jewish ones”. Cuz, y’know, that would be fucked up.

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