The recent events that have unfolded in France have shown the best and worst of humanity. Once again, a series of cowardly acts of violence have caused numerous senseless deaths. Once again, families, friends, colleagues, countrymen and the world are mourning. And yet today, millions have stood up and marched around the world in a beautiful and rare sign of peaceful political and religious unity and in favor of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
In class Wednesday, we talked about the events. We examined tweets and political cartoons in French from around the world that overtook Twitter in an explosion of indignant anger and rebellion against these attacks on the most fundamental tenets of a democratic society. We sent our penpal classes in France pictures showing our sympathy and solidarity.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably noticed that I tagged many of my tweets #jesuischarlie or “I am Charlie”, “Charlie Hebdo” being the name of the satirical paper whose editorial staff was the initial target of the terrorists. By now, you may have researched or seen in the news and on social media the content of Charlie Hebdo: always harshly critical of many facets of society, many groups, many faiths and many points of view…and often incredibly offensive.
Like many, including one of my students, I had to decide if I would be part of the #jesuischarlie movement. I had to think about whether that hashtag meant I agreed with the contents and the editorial approach of that paper (which I do not) or if the tag represented something more. For my student, a thoughtful, mature and very talented artist in my French 4 class, she could not bring herself to hold a sign or part of a sign with the #jesuischarlie tag in our class photo. She abhors the violence and the deaths and wants to stand in solidarity with our class against terrorism, but she also vehemently believes that the paper’s content is so offensive and hateful that, in her opinion, it does not deserve protection under statutes protecting freedom of the press or freedom of expression. We all respected her opinion and she created her own drawing indicating that Islam is not about violence and she held that as she stood with the class in the photo we sent to our penpals.
And what about me? Like her, I find much of their content very offensive. I do believe that with the freedoms afforded citizens in democratic societies also comes the responsibility to exercise those freedoms in a manner that is respectful of the many diverse perspectives of the different people who call those societies their homes, their countries, and for many, their nationalities. But ultimately, all opinions have the right to not only exist but to be expressed. Those publicly expressing extreme opinions, those engaging in rhetoric that is hateful, defamatory, and derogatory, such as some of the content of Charlie Hebdo, know that their views will be questioned, critiqued and even outright criticized. They know that they may be asked to defend and explain their views. They expect to start conversations. Heated conversations. They do not expect–and they do not deserve–to die for expressing their views.
As offensive as some of their content is, we cannot, as a democratic society, say that they have no right to publish. Because the strength of “freedom of speech” depends precisely on our willingness to defend that right even when the opinions expressed are disdainful, unpopular, or only held by a small group rather than the majority. Otherwise we begin eroding that right, eliminating more and more ideas that are not in line with “majority thinking”. If only those opinions that are easily swallowed are protected, then freedom of speech in becomes just a meaningless slogan.
And so it is in that vein that I have determined that, yes, #jesuischarlie.