When gunmen mowed down cartoonists and satirists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week, a rallying cry – Je suis Charlie – blazed around the globe.
The assault on Charlie Hebdo – an assault on la liberté.
A sometimes healthy, sometimes acrimonious debate rapidly cropped up among the world’s media houses, with a rejigged view of the old university adage: publish or perish. Publish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, some of which were deemed “gratuitous insults” and “racist” by a towering grey eminence like The New York Times, or allow your freedom of expression to perish under the smoking guns of the Kouachi brothers.
But to argue that the debate around Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures is exclusively about free expression is to ignore a pantheon of critical values – like equality and justice – that should be considered in tandem with this greatest of democratic virtues. It is to ignore that empire, power, and privilege have a role to play in our selective defense of free expression, to ignore how “liberal values like secularism and free speech” can “cloak garden-variety xenophobia.”
And how our biased indignation over the practice of free expression can maintain the very structures of power and privilege that free expression is, in part, meant to call into question. As Anatole France wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
In short, the debate around Charlie Hebdo should also seek to answer this question: who is Charlie? And beyond the assault on free expression, what does he stand for?
To be sure, free expression and a free press are sacrosanct. They are cornerstones of freedom. They can allow us to speak truth to power. Otherwise, a mouthy, opinionated blog like Elle Beaver cannot exist. (Editor’s note: And thank f*cking god for that.)
But as the French perched atop national monuments to show solidarity, Charlie’s name on their lips, they invoked principals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – the battle cry coined by revolutionaries struggling under the yoke of monarchy during the French Revolution – and it was clear that there was more than la Liberté at stake. Thus as terrorists trespassed on la Liberté, how do we begin to reconcile its exercise with the other virtues of Égalité and Fraternité on which Charlie Hebdo frequently trampled?
Although it bragged about targeting all genders, races, and religions, Charlie Hebdo was never in the business of fraternity or equality. As Slate’s Jordan Weissman writes, “This, in a country where Muslims are a poor and harassed minority, maligned by a growing nationalist movement (…) Charlie Hebdo may claim to be a satirical, equal-opportunity offender. But there’s good reason critics have compared it to “a white power mag.”
In that same vein, Monia Mazigh writes in Rabble, “Freedom of expression, a noble concept, came to be perceived by many marginalized French Muslim youth as an empty slogan used by the powerful elite to justify the silencing of Muslims and to allow the right-wing to bash Muslims at will.”
But it is The Hooded Utilitarian’s Jacob Canfield that puts it best: “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire.”
And likewise, it was an act of ‘punching down,’ that was committed by the DDS 2015 Gentlemen Facebook group hailing from Dalhousie University, the very group that has catapulted the university – where one can “Become a Citizen of Dal” – into the entrails of Canada’s national conversation about rape culture on its university campuses.
And quite naturally, the right to free expression by these ‘boys being boys’ was invoked within days of the story gaining national traction. As repulsive as it might be, it is a legitimate question to raise: are the posts cracking ‘delightful’ jokes about using pharmaceuticals and chloroform to knock out women for the purposes of rape, the ‘spirited’ debates about whom among their female classmates they’d like to “hate-f*ck,” and even the ‘useful’ explanation of how the penis is a “tool used to wean and convert lesbians and virgins into useful, productive members of society,” legitimate manifestations of free expression?
Or are they legitimate manifestations of privilege and power? Or both?
Mark Mercer, free speech advocate and chair of the philosophy department at Saint Mary’s University, has argued that students should be allowed free range, writing: “A university is a place of intellectual community, or should be, and intellectual community is sustained only if members of that community are free from institutional pressures to believe and value this way or that. Of course we want that we and others believe truly and value soundly, but we also want that we believe truly and value soundly for our own good reasons, not out of fear or hope of reward.”
In an interview with CBC, Mercer argued that “such a community is destroyed when members are directed to have certain beliefs and values, rather than allowed, through investigation and critical discussion, to come to their own beliefs and values.”
Because Dalhousie University’s Dentistry students were stroking their chins about the nature of hate-f*cking and converting lesbians by force as a thoughtful intellectual exercise, amiright?
So, according to DDS Gentlemen’s apologists, it’s a dictatorship of the ‘meek.’ Ladies, Lesbians, Campus Virgins, Roofied Lovelies: who knew you had all this power? Who knew that it is not YOU who must ‘fear’ or ‘hope for reward,’ but the DDS Gentleman who want to hate-f*ck you.
And what about rumblings in the media about Dalhousie’s female student body feeling that they have not been heard by their own university administration? As Claire McIlveen writes for The Chronicle Herald, “The backdrop of the Dal dentistry affair is grievances unanswered, inequality unaddressed, justice denied. It is about a society that is not paying attention and women who have not been heard.” It’s not for nothing that the hashtag that served as a rallying point was #DalhousieHatesWomen – it’s a denial of Charlie, or Charlotte, if you will.
Arguments made by Mercer smack of privilege, to say nothing of how little they reflect Canadian hate speech laws, or even criminal law (breaking: police are encouraging the women involved to come forward so that they might investigate any potential wrongdoing.) Only in privilege can we argue that a dental student’s intellectual growth is stunted by fellow students who are agitating for a learning climate that isn’t steeped in hostility, fear, and contempt. Students and professional dental associations from British Columbia to Nova Scotia who are demanding that the offenders be named and/or expelled are “blocking the road of inquiry.”
And it is precisely when DDS Gentlemen’s apologists or Charlie Hebdo invoke their right to privilege in the guise of free expression that we all lose. It is in these moments that we ‘spit on Charlie’s grave.’
And there’s been much spitting on Charlie’s grave and asymmetrical exercise of free expression.
Consider this: when world leaders – many of whom preside over nations with egregious press freedom records – marched arm-in-arm with French President François Hollande in defense of Charlie, Reporters Without Borders cautioned, “It would be unacceptable if representatives of countries that silence journalists were to take advantage of the current outpouring of emotion to try to improve their international image and then continue their repressive policies when they return home.”
Or consider how French Muslim women were unable to leverage the full force of the country’s free expression laws to permit them from wearing the Islamic veil.
Or how fashion houses like Chanel, H&M, and Urban Outfitters can express their creative freedoms and hawk Plains Native headdresses, but First Nations girls wearing the “Got Land? Thank an Indian” sweatshirt can be sent home from school or kicked off a city bus.
Or how the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded that five members of the Rams apologize for taking to the football field in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture.
And looking closer to home, we can only look to Stephen Harper’s Government who decried the attacks in Paris, declaring, “We stand with our allies in defiance of those who commit such barbaric acts and whose only aim is to usurp the rights of freedom-loving people everywhere, including the fundamental right of freedom of expression.”
Barbarity. Usurpers. The fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Fine rhetoric from a government with a reputation for silencing its critics: government scientists = muzzled. Critics of the Israeli Government = anti-Semites. NGOs working on human rights = suspect and deserving of rigid tax codes where “poverty alleviation” is no longer an acceptable charitable mandate.
So can we disrupt this asymmetrical practice of free expression? Can we ensure Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité?
Sadly, probably not.
But perhaps by acknowledging our own privilege, by supporting inclusive and equitable free expression that throws off the shackles of power, by understanding that our words are loaded weapons that can alienate, sideline, or strike fear in the hearts of those who may not wield the same access to free expression, we can aspire to honour these values.
Because that, my friends, is Charlie.
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