The public debate following a major news story has distinct phases. We are all literate in the stages: frantic news reports; confirmation of what has happened; The first opinion pieces, trying to make sense of what has happened (or, less charitably, spinning the events to fit the author’s world-view). Then we get push-back and counter-point to the earlier opinions; and ‘meta’ articles, discussing not the event itself, but the reporting, and the public response. Technology moves so fast that this piece I published on the Huffington Post is very much a ‘late era’ Charlie Hebdo article, despite the fact it was only (at the time of writing) six days since the hideous events in Paris.
There has already been plenty of dissent to the #JeSuisCharlie slogan and the sentiments it represents. Some refuse the hashtag because, like Jon Snow and the poppies, they’re wary of being compelled to make a gesture. Enforced solidarity, however noble, is anti-free speech too. Freedom of expression includes the right to not speak.
Others reject #JeSuisCharlie because they find some of the magazine’s cartoons to be rather unpleasant. Of course, pace Voltaire and Tallentyre, they defend the right of cartoonists to be deeply offensive. But supporting such a right does not automatically mean you align yourself with the every cartoon that can be found in the Charlie Hebdo archive.
Here’s the reason why #JeSuisCharlie does not work for me: I’m just not that brave. The staff of the magazine continued to publish, pulling no punches in their output, despite having received numerous death threats. That takes courage and a contrary personality, and I don’t think I have that in me. The free speech charity for which I work has republished the cover of the new edition of Charlie Hebdo… but as a writer I’m just not brave enough to take the same risks as the magazine’s staff. If someone threatened me with death or jail or even a large fine, there is a good chance that I would simply shut up and do something else. It is, after all, the ‘sensible’ option that guarantees my safety.
So, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie. And – I’ll bet – neither are you. But there are plenty of people out there who do exhibit the same bizarre tenacity. These atypicals may found in every culture and country – freedom of speech is not a value unique to France or the liberal western tradition. And it is only because these (frankly) weird people exist that the rest of us enjoy free speech protections. In some places, their belligerence is the only thing that prevents authoritarians stripping the people of their liberties altogether. It’s strange to think that civil society is not held together by conformity, by a few people who behave very differently to the rest of their compatriots.
PEN International maintains a case list of people who have been threatened, prosecuted, persecuted or killed because of what they have written. At present there are about 800 names on the list. It’s not for me to brand those people ‘Charlie’ but they do share at least one trait with the murdered cartoonists: the inclination to speak when dangerous people tell them to shut up.
I’ll pick just two countries as examples. The first is Mexico. This is a country with a good international standing (indeed, its literary culture will be celebrated at the London Book Fair this April) and yet 39 journalists were murdered between 2010 and 2014 – the equivalent of a Charlie Hebdo massacre of writers every year. The victims are those who dare to report on the drug trade and the corruption that plagues Mexico’s business and political system. I am not brave enough to even begin reporting on such matters, let alone continue to do so after death threats. And yet Mexico will never rid itself of its corrupt and complicit culture unless their are journalists prepared to expose the sins of the powerful.
A second example: Saudi Arabia, a country that enjoys cordial relations with the UK and the rest of Europe. Last Friday, the blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged after morning prayers. This Friday, he will be flogged again. He will endure this trauma every week until he has received 1,000 lashes (he is also serving a 10 year prison sentence). Badawi’s crime? “Insulting Islam” and “setting up a liberal website”.
I share Badawi’s values but I know I would never be brave enough to write something that I knew might get me imprisoned and flogged. And neither would you. But consider this: there’s no chance that the antiquated political system in Saudi Arabia will be reformed unless someone sets up a campaigning website to demand it.
We need more Raifs and we need more Charlies. If everyone followed their lead and exercised their rights together, authoritarian governments and religious fanatics would never be able to censor us. Oppression happens because so few of us are willing to take the risk and make a stand.
So, what are you waiting for? I’m right behind you.