Will Self: The Charlie Hebdo Attack and the Awkward Truths About Our Fetish for 'Free Speech'


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Will Self: The Charlie Hebdo Attack and the Awkward Truths About Our Fetish for 'Free Speech'

Trying to escape from the moral maze of Wednesday's massacre.

Illustrations by Nick Scott. Will Self author photo by Valerie Bennett.

Let me be clear: the people responsible for murdering the journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7th were the men who pulled the triggers of the Kalashnikovs aimed at them. Moreover, we've no need to reach into our grab-bag of ethical epithets in order to find one that fits these men's characters; we don't need to speak of "barbarism", or a "complete lack of civilised values", or agonise about how they became radicalised – because we know the answer already – but what we can unequivocally assert is that these men, in those rattling, coughing, cordite-stinking moments, were evil. If by evil is understood this: an egotism that grew like a cancer – a lust for status and power and "significance" which metastasised through these murderers' brains. The problem for the staunch defenders of Western values is that each and every one of us possesses this capacity for evil – it's implicit in having an ego at all; so when the demonstrators stood in the Place de la Republique holding placards that read "JE SUIS CHARLIE", they might just as well have held ones reading: "NOUS SOMMES LES TERRORISTES".


The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the law exists to restrain our worst impulses, not encourage our best. Those politicians, religious leaders and commentators that in the hours and days since this atrocity have spoken about freedom of speech as a sine qua non of that liberty which is in turn essential for civilisation, would've done well to remember both this and their own history: the birth of the French republic was attended by justice – blindfolded and wearing earplugs: it was called the Terror. When the sans-culottes stormed the Bastille they found a handful of prisoners in the ancient bastion, among them the Marquis de Sade, who soon enough found himself elevated to the position of revolutionary judge, despatching aristos and other reactionaries to the guillotine. It was a nice example of liberation – if by that is meant the freedom to murder for political ends.

The idea that the French secularists have of their political system (and for that matter the British secularists of theirs, the Americans ones of theirs, and so on), is that it not only encourages their best impulses, but that if it's perfected it will render the entire population supremely free and entirely good. This is a process that both right and left seem to feel is unstoppable – whether powered by some sort of moral "natural selection", or historical determinism. For these boosters the Enlightenment project of perfecting man's moral nature is still underway, and will only end when a (godless) heaven has been established on earth. But such rarefied progress is precisely what is mocked, not only by the murdering of Parisian journalists, but by the drone strikes in Syria, Iraq and Waziristan, which are also murders conducted for religio-political ends. It is mocked as well by the clamouring that follows every terrorist outrage for the suspension of precisely those aspects of the law that exist to restrain our worst impulses; in particular the worst impulses of our rulers: namely, due process of law, fair trials, habeas corpus and freedom from state-mandated torture and extra-judicial killing.


The memorial issue of Charlie Hebdo will have a print run of 1,000,000 copies, financed by the French government; so, now the satirists have been co-opted by the state, precisely the institution you might've thought they should never cease from attacking. But the question needs to be asked: were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo really satirists, if by satire is meant the deployment of humour, ridicule, sarcasm and irony in order to achieve moral reform? Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken's definition of good journalism: it should "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted". The trouble with a lot of so-called "satire" directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it's not clear who it's afflicting, or who it's comforting.

The last cartoon drawn by Charb, Charlie Hebdo's editor, featured a crude pictogram of a jihadist wearing a hat called a pakol – this would mark the fighter out as an Afghan, and therefore as unlikely to be involved in terrorist attacks in the West. Charb's caption flies in the face of this: above the Afghan jihadist it reads: "Still no attacks in France", while the speech bubble coming from his mouth reads: "Wait, there's until the end of January to give gifts."

Setting to one side the premonitory character of this cartoon, and the strangeness of a magazine editor who was prepared to die for his convictions (or so Charb said after the Charlie Hebdo offices were firebombed in 2011), yet not to get the basic facts about his targets correct, is it right to think of it as satire? Whatever else we may believe about people so overwhelmed by their evil nature that they're prepared to deprive others of their lives for the sake of a delusory set of ideas, the one thing we can be certain of is that they're not comfortable; moreover, while Charb's cartoon may've provoked a wry smile from Charlie Hebdo's readers, it's not clear to me that these people are the "afflicted" who, in HL Mencken's definition, require "comforting" – unless their "affliction" is the very fact of a substantial Muslim population in France, and their "comfort" consists in inking-in all these fellow citizens with a terroristic brush.

This is in no way to condone the shooting of Charb and the other journalists – an act that, as I pointed out initially, is evil, pure and simple, but our society makes a fetish of "the right to free speech" without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right. But then it also makes a fetish of "freedom" conceived of as agency worthy of a Nietzschean Ubermensch – whereas the truth of the matter is, as most of us understand only too well, we are in fact grossly constrained in most of what we do, most of the time – and a major part of what constrains us are our murderous, animal instincts.

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