Reactions to Charlie Hebdo say more about us than France
By Sebastian Leck
English-language reactions to the Paris shootings reveal crucial differences between our perceptions of free speech and those of French society.
The inevitable flood of journalistic takes on the event — from the valorization of the slain cartoonists to backlash against the racist caricatures in Charlie Hebdo — has focused primarily on tensions between freedom of speech and religious tolerance.
Yet in the rush to provide instant opinions on the tragedy, I see North American media outlets applying North American ideas to problems that are uniquely French.
Charlie was racist in its depictions of Islam. But the argument that it contributed to the oppression of French Muslims, while accurate, misses the point.
Few Parisians read Charlie. The magazine has an estimated circulation of 60,000, a tiny number next to its rival satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, which has a circulation of 500,000. The magazine also struggled financially; it asked for donations in November to help it continue publishing.
Despite its lack of readership or support, the magazine was a symbol of freedom of expression in France. The attack struck a nerve.
The purpose of the magazine isn’t to gently satirize politics. It’s meant to offend and be blasphemous, as its editors regard nothing as sacred and challenge those who do. It’s a left-wing paper with ideological aims, not a laugh-out-loud satirical paper in the style of The Onion.
Stéphane Charbonnier, the slain editor of Charlie, said he aimed to continue mocking Muslims “until Islam became as trivialized as Catholicism.”
This particularly French phenomenon — where papers that mock anybody and anything, often without humour, are tolerated in the name of press freedom — clashes with our cherished values of multiculturalism.
With our sense of political correctness, North American papers are restrained in ways that French and continental European media are not.
We accept self-censorship and the idea that language can actively oppress minority groups. In France, this isn’t a bygone conclusion, and mockery of different religions isn’t as taboo.
This isn’t to say I support Charlie Hebdo. Their satire inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment and resentment towards an Islamic minority, instead of striking at privileged groups. Freedom of speech also means the freedom of the large and powerful to attack those who can’t answer back.
The question, however, is whether the impulse to mercilessly mock all religions should be controlled in the name of diversity.
In Canada, we use the court of public opinion to shame and drive out those we find offensive. In France, gunmen murdered cartoonists for exercising their right to offend — a right we grant legally, but rarely grant in practice.
To those who say “I am not Charlie” and encourage others to do the same, I say don’t worry — we never were.
Sebastian is one of the Journal’s Features Editors. He’s a fourth-year history major.
Don’t ignore #jesuisjuifBy Chloe Sobel
In the days following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, thousands of people have proclaimed solidarity with the journalists and police killed, declaring “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis Ahmed”.
In the days following a linked attack on Jews at Hypercacher — a kosher supermarket in Paris — many of those thousands have remained silent.
It’s a silence I’ve noticed, because I’m not Charlie, nor am I Ahmed. Je suis Juif. And the comparative public disregard of a targeted anti-Semitic attack is a disregard of Jews everywhere.
The explanation for this is disquieting. It’s easy to stand up for the free expression of political satirists and cartoonists, because in defending their free speech, we see ourselves as defending our own.
It’s harder to stand up for a people maligned and persecuted for millennia. In a proudly and infamously secularist society like France — where wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools is banned, and widely interpreted as specifically targeting Muslims — it’s harder to stand up for the free practice of religion, if religion is something we see as deserving of mockery.
That’s exactly what the people killed at Hypercacher were doing — practicing their religion. The choice of a kosher supermarket was no accident. The attack was on Jews for simply existing as Jews in public. We would be mistaken to think this is unusual.
In 2012, France’s Jewish population was estimated at 480,000, making it the third-largest in the world behind Israel and the United States. That year, four people were killed in an anti-Semitic shooting at a Jewish school in France — three of them children.
In 2013, 40 per cent of hate crimes in France were against Jews. In 2014, the far-right party National Front won a quarter of the French vote in the European Parliament elections, as did far-right, fascist and neo-Nazi parties in other countries.
This is to say nothing of the popularity of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a French comedian convicted of anti-Semitism eight times who has popularized the quenelle, widely seen as an inverted Nazi salute.
Anti-Semitism is rising globally, spurred by increasing public backlash against Israel’s human rights violations mixed with Europe’s historical virulent anti-Semitism. Nothing that happens in France happens in a vacuum, and it’s imperative that the world show solidarity with Jews, just as it has with Charlie.
Je suis Juif. Are you?
Chloe is the Journal’s News Editor. She’s a fifth-year history major and Jewish studies minor.
Free speech doesn’t mean say whatever you wantBy Leigh Cameron
Many have viewed these attacks as an assault on free speech. But while no one should ever be subjected to violence because of something they’ve printed, journalists shouldn’t print whatever they want in their newspapers under the claim of freedom of speech.
The cartoons published by Charlie were a set of racist generalizations depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad in offensive ways. The right to speak your mind shouldn’t be equated with the right to print racist depictions that mock the values of different groups, as it’s harmful and further leads to discrimination.
Freedom of speech means an ability to question the ways in which we choose to live, but it also means showing our respect for others’ beliefs.
If everyone is allowed the right of free speech, why have many for years continuously condemned an entire community for asking publications to withhold drawings of a religious figure? Why are we publishing racist cartoons, which can’t be responded to by the Muslim community, to question beliefs instead of engaging in an open discussion about why groups hold certain beliefs?
There are better ways to discuss religious beliefs than printing racist cartoons to provoke thought among a population. Satirical cartoons do have a place in media as a way of questioning different actions, but they shouldn’t be used to make general assumptions about a population.
The attack on Charlie was a tragedy that has left all of us in shock, but it can be used as a way to realize how important tolerance is for all religions and how freedom of speech isn’t an excuse for racism and discrimination.
Leigh is one of the Journal’s Copy Editors. She’s a second-year English major.
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