Thoughts on #CharlieHebdo and the White Privilege of Free Speech

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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