Usually I don’t care to comment on current affairs or politics because I’m rather phobic when it comes to entering into scathing debates. But this whole Charlie Hebdo thing has given me pause. With the “JeSuisCharlie” hashtag quickly becoming one of the most popular hashtags ever on the social media site Twitter, I wonder if the world is really stopping to consider the implications of free speech and religious bigotry in our hyper-sensitive and threatening age. True, free speech as a concept in democratic societies is meant to safeguard individuals from governmental restraint; a prerequisite for freedom. You can mock religion all you want in countries like France or America, without fear of being fined or put in jail. But in our globally-connected sphere, mocking religion may put you on the fast-track for being targeted by Islamic radicalism. Such was the case in Paris last week.
I am reminded by some of the things I’ve written before on new media; how the rapid-fire dissemination of content on social media sites speeds up time in a way, and often obscures the potential for rational debate. “Rational debate has deteriorated into mass hypnotism.” In other words, it is all too easy to follow the hashtag trend. One can easily declare “I am Charlie,” without even thinking about the larger issues behind the Paris incident. I think the popularity of the hashtag this past week was the result of a visceral response to realizing, again, that people were killed by an act of terrorism. It’s a simpleminded equation. People are thinking “Murder is bad, freedom is good. Therefore, I am for freedom.” Thus the Je suis Charlie hashtag. But this show of solidarity can be made without even bothering to translate Je suis, if you don’t happen to know any French. By identifying with Charlie Hebdo, one is essentially perpetuating violence of their own; even though rhetorical violence pales in comparison to the violence of the terrorists. But by sympathizing with the variant of freedom subscribed to by Charlie Hebdo, one is aligning themselves with the brand of satirical commentary that is being published. Personally, I would not draw a picture of Mohammed being raped, and then go around plastering that image around my city. Such a gesture is sophomoric and vile, and would immediately garner negative attention. Not only that, but it unnecessarily maligns people who are already part of a marginalized community.
In a Slate article last week, Jordan Weismann wrote “Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms.” I agree with his viewpoint. Publishing companies like Charlie Hebdo should not be shut down. Certainly, they have a right to their own commentary. Moreover, they provide a sadly comparable counterexample to the Arab and Muslim press that has a heyday with Jewish and Christian traditions. But hate begets more hate, does it not? Of course, I am not one of these people who think that peaceful non-interventionism will make the world right. However, I think the free world should aim at a more articulate and rational commentary that values an Enlightenment ideal. Certainly, there are beliefs in the world’s major religions that are outmoded, barbaric, and illogical. But instead of aiming to offend the adherents of those religions (ninety-some percent of whom will not become murderous radicals), we should be trying to open a dialogue that is based on intelligence, not bigotry.
With the recent tragedy in Paris, writers have harkened back to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which was meant to forward a discussion in the Muslim world regarding Quranic literalism versus interpretation. The often acerbic Christopher Hitchens, in another Slate article published this week, offers a decent yet scathing defense of free speech. I am inclined to agree with Hitchens as well. Civil society should be willing to let comics like Charlie Hebdo pass. But that does not mean we should sacrifice our wisdom, maturity, and rationality to baser and more bigoted emotionalism. Even if intelligent and tasteful commentary won’t convince religious extremists of people’s innocence in the West, that is still no excuse to remain or become bigoted on our part. Therefore, I think new hashtags would be more appropriate. Perhaps #notbigoted or #IamnotCharlie? While showing a promising impulse of solidarity, the fact that so many have jumped on this particular hashtag seems a bit troubling.