Je Suis Charlie
14 January 2015
Prior to the terrorist attack against the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week I didn't even know what Charlie Hebdo was. I don't know who any of their staff are, much less know them personally. I don't even know the names of those who were killed in the attack without looking them up. And yet today I'm posting an image of the cover of their Survivor issue with the "Je Suis Charlie" slogan which popped up almost immediately after the attack and quickly spread worldwide.
The reason for this is very simple: I support free speech. It doesn't matter that the magazine is an atheist publication and I'm an atheist. Like I said in the first sentence, before a week ago I didn't even know who they were. No, the reason is that members of their staff died at the hands of religious fanatics for no reason than that they exercised their right to free speech - a right that, sadly, too many people worldwide think extends only so far as to cover their own opinions and beliefs.
In order to be able to reconcile the idea of free speech with one's own sensibilities, one must understand that free speech is a double-edged sword. I live in a very Christian-centric part of the world. Every day I see people wearing crosses on their clothes and jewelry. They display pictures of crosses on their homes, vehicles, and buildings. As an atheist I can't help but wonder at the ideology that leads to someone so prominently displaying symbols of a medieval torture device on their person, on their belongings, and in their homes and workplaces. If I let myself think too long about it, I might start to feel a little afraid around these people, but I wouldn't think of demanding that they not exercise their right to display this symbol of their religious belief. The fact that I don't agree with their point of view and don't enjoy them displaying depictions of the device upon which their savior was supposedly murdered does not allow me to infringe upon their right to keep showing it off.
With a few exceptions (like yelling "fire!" in a crowded movie theater or threatening to kill someone) free speech pretty much allows people who enjoy that right to say just about anything they please. You don't have to respect their beliefs. You don't have to respect them. But you do need to respect their right to have their say. I have the right to say what I want. You have the right to be offended by it. You have the right to say whatever you want in response. And, in turn, I have the right to respond to your response. That's how dialogue works. What you don't have the right to do is to silence me in order to prevent yourself being offended. And I don't have the right to silence you because I disagree with your message. It's bad enough when someone tries to take the right of free speech away from someone else based on a difference of opinion. But when a person or group of people decide that murder and/or terrorism is the best course of action to take due to that same difference of opinion, we are all in danger.
Censorship is a horrible way of winning an argument. Attempting to censor someone whose ideas or beliefs you don't agree with just serves to show that you don't really have a valid argument and are simply trying to shut up the opposition so that yours is the only available opinion*. As bad as censorship is, though, it doesn't hold a candle to terrorism/murder as a despicable means of silencing the opposition. It can and often does have the opposite effect. Charlie Hebdo's circulation a week ago was 60,000 print copies. This morning their Survivor issue sold 3 million copies before 8am, with another 2 million copies ordered from the printer as I'm writing this article. It was little known as a publication outside of France a week ago and now people worldwide are clamoring for copies, with copies showing up online for several hundred dollars. But, those who care naught for the rights of anyone but themselves and those who think exactly like them are too often willing to take extreme measures to try to make the world into their idea of what it should be.
Free speech isn't threatened only by religious belief and those who take that belief to extremes. It can and does find opposition in political discourse, debates over which sports team is more dominant, and differences in personal opinion over the most trivial of topics. "Shut up" should never be used in an argument between equals (there are many who don't like parents using those words in arguments with their children, as well). I have slanted this article more towards the threat presented by religion because, despite the adamant denials of some in the "liberal" media - and the White House - the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was clearly motivated by religious belief. Regardless of the arguments over headscarves, the French invasion and occupation of Algiers in 1830, or US military atrocities committed in Iraq (all of which I have heard cited in the media as reasons for the on-going angst among Muslims in France), these terrorists attacked a magazine known for publishing cartoons of religious and political figures in less-than-favorable scenes at best and downright offensive scenes as often as not. It all boils down to their violent response to cartoons which depict an opinion they find offensive.
I'm not saying that Charlie Hebdo cartoons aren't offensive. They are to many people. The point is that it's the magazine's right to publish those cartoons and articles. It's the right of the writers and cartoonists to have their work made available to the public. Sure, it's the public's right to be offended by them, but that doesn't deny the rights of those at Charlie Hebdo - or anywhere else in the world where the right to free speech is protected - to keep having their say. And certainly no one should be murdered for speaking their mind.
Je suis Charlie.
* Now, this is wildly different from trying to keep religious indoctrination out of public schools. There is a huge difference between allowing differing opinions to be presented to adults who should be able to logically make up their own minds and presenting mythological fairy tales to children in a setting in which those children are supposed to accept what they're told as fact. Indoctrination when they're young too often creates children who enter adulthood lacking the ability to use logic to determine what is fact and what is fiction.