‘Je Suis Charlie’: a caricature of freedom of speech
The pro-Charlie set is now holding back the fight for free expression.
In the four months since the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, something surreal has happened: this mag that slayed sacred cows has itself become a sacred cow. Among Europe’s self-styled ‘decent liberals’, the ones who still claim to believe in free speech, you criticise it at your peril. Think Charlie was infantile? Keep it to yourself. Think its Muhammad mockery was crude, and maybe unnecessary? How dare you. It’s the oddest thing: a magazine celebrated for pissing on dogmas has itself become the stuff of dogma. ‘Je Suis Charlie’ has morphed from an instinctual cry of solidarity with massacred journalists into an article of faith; a doctrine of the dinner-party set; a religious-style test of who is Good, and can thus be granted entrance into the realm of decent liberalism, and who is Bad, and must be written off as a fake liberal.
Immediately after the massacre, the worst response was from the anti-Charlie crowd. This censorious lobby went so far as to suggest Charlie Hebdo’s staff brought their murders on themselves. If only they’d been nicer to Muslims, and not so ribaldrous in relation to Muhammad, perhaps they wouldn’t have had their heads blown off, went the argument. In one fell swoop, these apologists for what happened in Paris signalled their contempt for freedom of speech, especially the right to be offensive, and also depicted Muslims as a hotheaded breed whose belief system must never be poked because who knows how they’ll respond. Their suggestion that we shush our criticisms of Islam was in essence a call to reinstate blasphemy laws, at least informally, and to tiptoe around Europe’s Muslims on the basis that they’re less capable of taking criticism than the rest of us.
Months later, this Charlie-bashing crowd is still influential, raising their freedom-allergic heads after Muhammad-related shootings in Copenhagen and Texas to insist, once again, that we can only save ourselves through self-censorship. Those of us who believe in free speech must argue hard against them. But now, the pro-Charlie crowd has become a big problem, too. For what has become clear is that the mantra of ‘Je Suis Charlie’ is less about having out the much-needed argument for unfettered freedom of speech than it is about avoiding it. The super-clarified, black-and-white stand-off between decent liberals who are against the murder of journalists and Islamist psychos with guns who are not has become a theatrical distraction from the far more complex question of what is causing censorship in modern Europe.
Right now, it isn’t only Muhammad who’s being caricatured — so is the ideal of freedom of speech, by the pro-Charlie set. These narrow defenders of people’s right to take the piss out of Muhammad often say things like, ‘What could be more clear-cut than this?’. And that’s precisely the problem. Their search for the easy clarity of a battle between those opposed to murder (Us) and intolerance coming down the barrel of a gun (Them) is driven by complacency and confusion over the longstanding, messy undermining of free speech in Europe. Which is not actually the handiwork of Them, but rather of Us: of liberals who ditched liberty, and said nothing as racists and Holocaust deniers and other outliers were censored in recent years; of academics who oversaw the rise of relativism in the academy and of its ugly twin, too: non-judgmentalism, the transformation of criticism of certain beliefs into a borderline crime; of politicians who passed hate-speech laws with little resistance; of Twittermobs whose rallying cry is the motto of our age: ‘You Can’t Say That!’ Pro-Charlie people hope to brush aside the awkward fact that they allowed this profoundly censorious culture to grow over the past 30 years by now saying: ‘It’s all about Charlie. You’re either with it or against it.’ Like George W Bush said about the war on terror.
In fact, liberals’ thirst for the cheap clarity offered by the Charlie aftermath has now become a kind of mutual dependency. Liberals who can’t make a convincing case for freedom of speech need Islamist hotheads, as a stark symbol of intolerance all decent people can oppose, while Islamist hotheads need these Charlie-backing liberals as evidence that the West really is out to get Muslims. The two sides are locked in a weird, deadly embrace. Liberals’ inability to explain and tackle the true crisis of freedom can be glossed over by their engagement in an ever-louder war of words over what some call the ‘jihad against free speech’ (demonstrating how foreign they think the threat to free speech is), while Islamist activists’ need to be seen as The Victim all the time can be boosted by their conviction that every hack in the West just wants to mock Muhammad.
This marriage of political convenience was brilliantly summed up in the comments of Pamela Geller, the bigoted American blogger, after her infantile ‘Draw Muhammad’ exhibition in Texas was attacked by two gunmen. The attack showed exactly ‘why we need events like this’, she said. So the fact that certain Muslims hated the exhibition justified the existence of the exhibition. She needs their hatred, and they need hers. It’s meta. We’re witnessing an utterly phoney Enlightenment, in which freedom comes to mean little more than drawing Muhammad with a dick on his head, and intolerance is depicted as a largely foreign, brown-skinned affair. The importance of freedom of speech, and the question of what is really undermining it, is bastardised by the Muhammad mockers.
Such is the pro-Charlie set’s inability to make a real case for freedom of speech that not only have they said nothing about numerous other recent cases of censorship that didn’t involve Muslims with guns. They have also created a new dogma, and dogma is the enemy of free expression. Their dogma is ‘Je Suis Charlie’. Charlie is their bible. Their unwillingness to look hard at the crisis of free speech has led them to search desperately for one simple thing through which they might prove their alleged love of liberty, and they’ve landed on Charlie. So, diss Charlie and you diss everything they stand for, which isn’t very much. It’s almost too much irony to handle: Charlie Hebdo has become some liberals’ own Muhammad, a godly stand-in for their failure to carve out a more convincing, true, moral case for freedom and openness in the 21st century.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.