The public response to the massacre of journalists at Charlie Hebdo has been articulated as a gesture of solidarity: “Je suis Charlie.”
It has been chanted by marchers in the Place de la Republique and repeated on Hollywood stages. It has the appeal of hashtag simplicity and bumper-sticker righteousness.
But despite its seductive simplicity, that gesture not only fails to address the urgent cultural and political problems that led to the massacre, it also has made them far worse.
It hardens the “us”/”them” opposition between a supposedly tolerant and liberal West and its supposedly intolerant and violent antagonist, the Muslim East.
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For the rush to identify with Charlie Hebdo is not just to commemorate massacred journalists but to celebrate Western culture in general, especially freedom of expression, for which the magazine — whose main claim to fame in recent years has been the relentless lampooning of Islam — has all too hastily been made a symbol.
To “be Charlie” means to affiliate yourself with freedom of speech in absolute terms, as a core principle of Western civilization.
Yet there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. There are always limits to what can be said, how and in what context.
Especially in France, speech is subject to strict — albeit selectively enforced — legal constraints. There are laws against hate speech and against speech taken to be supportive of political violence.
For the last several years, for example, the Cameroonian French satirical comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has been repeatedly charged and convicted of anti-Semitic hate speech because his stand-up routine contained material that is no doubt offensive to some, and because of his infamous “quenelle,” which some see as an inverted Nazi salute.
The French government has worked assiduously to have his shows banned.
No sooner had the government finished celebrating free speech on Sunday than it had arrested Dieudonne because of a Facebook post that conflated “Je suis Charlie” with the name of one of the Paris gunmen.
Even Charlie Hebdo has it limits. In 2008 it fired one of its cartoonists, Maurice Sinet, for what was taken to be an anti-Semitic slur.
It is clear, then, that in France some satirical hate speech is intolerable and will be vigorously prosecuted, while other satirical hate speech, directed against different racial or ethnic targets — in particular France’s Muslim minority — is not only permissible but has now become the centerpiece of a self-congratulatory celebration of supposedly Western values.
This structure has been used since the late 18th century to justify the use of large-scale violence against Muslims, from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the French occupation of Algeria to the current French bombardments of North Africa and Iraq, all of which at least partly set the stage for the recent violent outburst.
Charlie Hebdo has had many satirical targets, but it also has insinuated itself firmly into this structure, with its long-running series of derogatory cartoons directed against Muslims.
This strays far from the original function of satire.
The great satirists, including Swift, Byron and Moliere, didn’t direct their barbs at reviled and vulnerable minorities. On the contrary, they used satire to expose the vices and the flaws of the self-confident and the powerful.
Charlie Hebdo’s satire, in contrast, descended into mere racist taunting and baiting.
What does it mean to be French or Western? What does it mean to be one of “us” as opposed to one of “them”?
Modern questions of inclusion and exclusion are infinitely complicated, and all of us urgently need to think about them in a collective conversation.
Rallying around a simplistic slogan such as “Je suis Charlie” doesn’t further that conversation, it retards it.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.