image courtesy of Elya
image courtesy of Elya

The problem with Je suis Charlie is that I’m not.

Going back for a second.

The hashtag/slogan that started in the wake of the massacre at the offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo has proven to possess an undeniable power – not because it’s meant in any literal sense (obviously) but because of what it means in every way that isn’t literal. It rose out of intense horror, outrage, and the things that intense horror and outrage do – it prompted correspondingly powerful feelings of solidarity. What happened was abhorrent, obscene. Of course this is how we respond when people are killed for what they say, what they write, for the art they create. We know what kind of world that kind of violence leads to, and that’s not a world in which people who value the right of free speech want to live. Of course we’ll fight to protect that right, however we can.

But there is a problem with Je suis Charlie, and it is that I’m not.

I’m a writer. I’ve written stuff that a lot of people would call offensive, that they would probably call obscene. I’m the last person to argue against the ideal of free speech. But here’s the thing: Especially as Americans, in the course of placing huge amounts of value on the right to free speech we (using we because I am and most of the people I know are as well, so it’s most of my social circle) tend to massively oversimplify what that right means and the context within which it exists. Some of us tend to use it as an excuse for utterly terrible behavior and to cry censorship when people call them on it.

And others – many others – throw the ideal of it around without regard for the complications it creates. This is especially true at this moment in history, with a great deal of our discourse bound up in the vaguely libertarian ideals we see – a lot of the time – in chaotic and loosely affiliated groups like Reddit, 4chan, and Anonymous (yes, I know those are not all the same things).

I may not like what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it works fabulously well when it’s put to practice in the context of a society organized around a level playing field, where groups of people aren’t marginalized, oppressed, silenced, and murdered through systems and structures bolstered by culture and discourse, where for many what’s at stake is not I may not like what you have to say but rather What you have to say is part of what is killing me. In other words, it works fabulously well in the context of a society that does not and probably never will exist.

I feel like I’m not doing a very good job of articulating what I think about this, so let me refer to something said by fellow author Sofia Samatar on Twitter:

Thin. Not nonexistent, but thin.

This is the world in which we live. It sucks, and no one likes complications, and solidarity in the cause of freedom of expression is a great and powerful and righteous thing and I want to stress that I believe that last to the very core of my writerly human being. But the problem with Je suis Charlie is that I’m not, and to use that slogan – and to go no further with the conversation – obscures at least some of the extremely problematic and troubling things that accompany any ideals of free speech in a world in which some people are simply not free, and in which the speech of others produces and reproduces the cultures that keep them that way.

And this is what hashtag activism does. It’s what most protest slogans do. Anyone remember Kony 2012? The problem with that whole business wasn’t that it was incorrect – Joseph Kony is a horrendous human being, a psychopathic war criminal without whom the world would be undeniably better off, and no one disputed that. The problem with Kony 2012 was the white Western context from which it emerged and the fact that it oversimplified the issue to the point of obscuring and even erasing some very significant problems.

The problem with Je suis Charlie is that it kind of does the same thing, in the process of creating and encouraging a kind of solidarity that we need in the most desperate way. The problem with Je suis Charlie is that not everyone can be Charlie. The problem with Je suis Charlie is that it erases a huge amount of the conversation we should maybe be having about what free speech really is and does, and what it costs certain people to defend it completely and without any question or consideration in every single circumstance.

The problem with Je suis Charlie is that I’m not.


Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry