To be, or not to be, that has been the question this last week. Specifically, to be, or not to be Charlie. Since the deadly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris last week, media personalities, pundits, politicians, and celebrities rushed to assert "Je Suis Charlie" ["I am Charlie"] as a gesture of solidarity with those murdered. Meanwhile, others made it clear that "Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie" ["I am not Charlie"] to distance themselves from the satirical magazine's oftentimes Islamophobic content.
An alien surveying Earth through the lens of mainstream media would fairly deduce humanity to be split into two opposing tribes, the Charlies and the not-Charlies.
It is now a well-worn pattern within contemporary expressions of solidarity that supportive parties assert "I am [name of victim]." Protest rallies across the country last year echoed the chant, "We are all Mike Brown." During her court martial, while Chelsea Manning was privately living under her chosen name, posters of support proclaimed "I am Bradley Manning" — but even Manning was not Bradley Manning. The sentiment of the slogans is clear and clearly well-meaning; that one identifies with the victim. In the face of tragedy, oppression, and horror, helpless observers reach for something more than sorrow and sympathy. The closest relation of all is asserted — that of identity.
But identification is a complicated game, and as "Je Suis Charlie" / "Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie" illustrates, to claim not just connection but oneness with victims can be false, empty, and even dangerous. Bernard Holtrop, a Dutch cartoonist with Charlie Hebdo, said that the magazine's surviving cartoonists "vomit on all these new people who suddenly say they are our friends." He pointed out that "a few years ago, thousands of people took to the streets in Pakistan to demonstrate against Charlie Hebdo. They didn't know what it was. Now it's the opposite."
But it is no better to assert "Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie" in response to all the newly self-christened Charlies. The negation plays into a cheap binary that serves neither the massacre victims nor the discourse around free speech and Islamophobia that surrounds the killings. We are in an impoverished place of reflection when so many commentators who do not want to identify with a controversial satirical magazine feel they must heap caveat upon caveat on the claim that they are not Charlie: "I am not Charlie — but of course I condemn the attacks." As if refusing complete identification draws into question whether an individual supports terrorist slaughter.
The slogan risks flattening the global response into an "us vs. them" nightmare in which to speak in opposition to Islamist terror, one is forced to stand with perpetrators of different terrors.
But herein lies the real danger of the "Je Suis Charlie" slogan: in response to a vile massacre, the options seemed to be to stand with Charlie — to be Charlie — or to risk looking like you stand with terror. It's a neo-conservative dream, a world divided between "us" and the "terrorists." We have more than a decade's worth of lessons in how this ideology gives rise to unending war, mass surveillance, and torture.
Any keen surveyor of hypocrisy will note that the 3.7 million-strong Parisian rally in support of the massacre's victims did not exactly attract the world's greatest defenders of free speech. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — forecloser of Palestinian freedom and speech — walked alongside Saudi Arabian Ambassador to France Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh, whose country regularly flogs and jails journalists. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a popular target of harsh Charlie Hebdo satire, marched too in what journalist Jeremy Scahill rightly called a "circus of hypocrisy." Thirty-three journalists have been murdered in Russia, allegedly for their work, since 2000. The list of hypocrites who came out for Charlie is long.
Which illustrates all too clearly that it is not enough to say "Je Suis Charlie" in order to stand up for free speech. Furthermore, the slogan risks flattening and homogenizing the global response to a complicated, tragic event into an "us versus them" nightmare, in which to speak in opposition to Islamist terror, one is forced to stand with perpetrators of different terrors.
It is not only in the case of Charlie Hebdo that problems arise when asserting "I am" a given victim. Many of the young black people protesting police violence and racism who asserted "I am Mike Brown" — or "I am Trayvon Martin" before that — had good reason to do so. The phrases encapsulated an important truth about these teens' deaths, that they were not isolated. A young black man who fears death or harassment by law enforcement in the US speaks to that fear by stating, especially among peers, "I am Mike Brown."
By contrast, when a group of white teens (statistically 21 times less likely to be fatally shot by police than their black peers) chants "We are all Mike Brown," there is a problem. The issue in these cases is that young white people do not occupy the subject position that Brown or Martin did — they are not read as criminal and dangerous by virtue of skin color alone. They are not Mike Brown. Which is not to foreclose support or a shared struggle against structural racism, but to urge away from false equivalences that gloss over the very specific experiences of oppressed groups.
This importantly ties back in to the problem of the "Je Suis Charlie" slogan. If the expression is intended to convey a fear that any of us could have been victims of Islamist terror, that is a much more dangerous expression of fear than when a black teen states "I am Mike Brown." Black teens in the US are systematically harassed by the police; we in the West are not all systematically under deadly threat by Islamists, despite the desire of some that we would be. To buy in to the fear that we might all be slaughtered like the Charlie cartoonists is to buy in to the same hyperbolized dread that followed 9/11 (and, indeed the Cold War) — our paranoid national security state was built on such fear and needs no further bolstering.
It is a bold move to explicitly identify with — or as — the victim of oppression or terror. It is only occasionally valid, given the diversity of lived experience among us. Identification is also not a prerequisite for solidarity and support. Following the massacre in Paris, we have already seen hypocrisy from world leaders, and we will see paradox: In defense of free speech, mass surveillance will be spread. British Prime Minister David Cameron this week said that anti-terror laws should enforce the government's ability to read any given communication.
What is needed is nuance — serious consideration of what it means to defend free speech, which includes reflection on who gets to speak freely, who even gets to be Charlie. There are so very many silenced voices, underserved by and outside of those who have decided "Je Suis Charlie" or "Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie."
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