As I write this, it is just few days after the barbaric attacks on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and already the inevitable backlash against the murdered victims has begun. Firstly, it comes from those who seek to question the judgment of the victims. Then it comes from publications and social media activists who seek to delegitimize Charlie Hebdo without understanding either the context of the newspaper's content or its place within French society and history.
Meanwhile they are all, intentionally or not, managing to take our attention off the reality of this brutal crime and focus it somewhere else, oftentimes on their own ideological agenda. It is disappointing and immensely depressing that the conversation is beginning to be hijacked in this way.
The first group is the most cowardly. Figures who should know better, such as Tony Barber of the Financial Times and even the U.S. government when the newspaper was attacked in 2011, maintain that because Charlie Hebdo was baiting terrorists by continuing to print cartoons deemed offensive by some Muslims and they should have stopped publishing such cartoons or should have understood the risks and never published any at all. To these people I ask, how can we defend our most cherished beliefs if we roll over as soon as they are challenged?
Of course the staff of Charlie Hebdo knew the risks. They were firebombed in 2011 and continued publishing. Executive editor Stephane Charbonnier had even said in a by now much referenced quote originally attributed to Emiliano Zapata, "I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees." These gutless assertions by Barber and others, that the newspaper should have stood down when intimidated, would be laughable if they weren't so despicable coming as they did so soon after the event.
The second group is newer and in some ways more troubling including, as it does, sources I often respect. It is born out of a growing obsession with identity politics in the left-wing press and social media often for legitimate reasons such as the Ferguson and Staten Island police brutality cases. To greater or lesser degrees in publications like Slate, Canadaland, and on sites like Tumblr, the focus is no longer on the terrible tragedy, the victims, nor on what this all means for the future of free expression but instead on Charlie Hebdo's supposed racism and Islamophobia in its depictions of Muhammad, and inexplicably by extension, all Muslims.
A new hashtag has appeared, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie, in reaction to #JeSuisCharlie which began to show up just after the attack. The proponents of this counter-narrative argue that because the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were 'racist,' this somehow made the crime less grave or consequential and that we shouldn't hold the newspaper up as a bastion of free speech. Some go so far as to consider its depictions hate speech and in league with fascist right-wing parties like Marine Le Pen's Front National.
Of course these commentators don't understand, don't care about, or don't bother to learn the context in which these cartoons first appeared. They conveniently ignore the magazine's left-wing credentials and commitment to anti-racism and anti-homophobia. They ignore how the newspaper goes after many right-wing targets (including Front National) as well as the left and all religions indiscriminately including similarly offensive images of Jews and Catholics, the predominant religion of France and of the right-wing of the country. They ignore the anger they caused to many in the political center, right and far right and the incredible irony now occurring of opportunistic right-wing fanatics coming to their defense.
Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity offender and has angered many in France of all levels of society. The newspaper is also part of a proud history of French satire which dates back to before the 1789 revolution. It was a tradition that found a resurgence in the form of cartoons during the 1960s and 1970s following the student revolution in 1968.
This troubling new distraction in the conversation is as problematic as those of the conspiracy theorists who inevitably argue the murders were a false flag attack committed by the CIA. Even with the lame and spineless "of course they shouldn't have been killed" qualifier before it, these race-oriented critiques often come alarmingly close to equivocation or, as with the #JeNeSuisPasCharlie hashtag, victim blaming (something that many social media activists are right to decry in other contexts).
This is not to say that all critiques of Charlie Hebdo are illegitimate all of the time. Many reasonable and intelligent people have expressed their dismay at what they have published in the past and they may be right. The point is that now is not the time.
We need publications like Charlie Hebdo now more than ever because of exactly what their crude, offensive, and difficult work represents. It is a challenge to authority, and a challenge to those who would wish to use violence as an act of oppression.
We must recognize the value that comes from pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, of breaking taboos, of standing up to thugs. Not to do so speaks to a form of cowardice only supplanted by the news outlets who have refused to show the cartoons and the even more pathetic attempts to justify that decision. It gives those who wish to intimidate us exactly what they want: self-censorship brought on by fear.
If we cannot even agree that these values of free expression so important to democracy need to be defended no matter of what form they take then we truly are lost. It is through protecting that which some may see as profane that is the real test of liberal democracies. If we cannot do that then we have lost the war against the illiberal forces that threaten us.