It was just a few weeks ago, days really, that most people in France and many around the world were saying, even at the Golden Globes (right?), “Je suis Charlie,” [“I am Charlie.”] identifying with the staff at the French publication Charlie Hebdo who were brutally murdered by Islamic extremists.
While I am not a supporter of the content that Charlie Hebdo generated, I will defend their right to say what they said.
Interestingly, last week, a French court convicted three people for writing despicable tweets against homosexuals. Some of the tweets made claims that all homosexuals should be killed. But I doubt such speech would hold up as a viable threat in a court of law. It might provide circumstantial evidence were one of the authors to be accused of killing someone in this group, but it wouldn’t be a threat per se.
Clearly, these three individuals writing despicable content were not Charlie in the eyes of the court. But the content of Charlie Hebdo, arguably similarly despicable in many cases, was not convicted in a court of law and was extolled in public opinion. It was defended as satire. (Last week, I linked to a piece by George Weigel in which he argued that it was not satire, but something far more serious.)
Again, I don’t agree with the content of the tweets in question. But I fail to see how they’re not covered by free speech, no matter how deplorable. And, in any event, aren’t we actually safer when we know who such people are because they freely publicize it? To me that seems better than not knowing who they are, but fearing that they’re probably out there somewhere.
The Charlie references remind me, in a tragicomic way, of a joke that bum told a group of us coming out of a pub. (To get this, you’ll have to know something about 70s TV. We, admittedly, were a little slow on the uptake.) We were four, myself and three male friends. The bum stopped us and asked each of the men, “Are you Charlie?” Of course, none of them was and we had no idea what he was talking about. After he asked the last one, he asked them all, “Then what are you doing with this angel?” We all agree that he earned a tip for that one! [In case you need some help with the 70s cultural reference, it was the TV show “Charlie’s Angels.]
So who’s Charlie now after the buzz of a couple of weeks ago when world leaders gathered to lead a rally of millions in defense of free speech and as a stand against a violent reaction to free speech? After all, in both the case of the magazine and the individuals tweeting, the content was awful and not defensible except if one accepts the right to free speech. Neither group was yelling “Fire!” in a crowded space or talking about terrorist activity while standing in line at airport security.
UPDATE. Here’s a thoughtful post by Luke O’Sullivan, written immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. He gives several examples in France of those exercising free speech legitimately who were not granted the recognition and promotion of being “Charlie.”