The January 7th terrorist attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo was not the first time the controversial cartoonists had faced violence in retaliation for their work. After a controversial cartoon of Mohammed was circulated in November 2011, the Hebdo headquarters were firebombed. But the magazine hardly flinched, publishing the cartoon as the front cover on the very next day. As chief editor Stéphane Charbonnier, affectionately known as Charb, would later defiantly state: “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
After Monday morning’s massacre, social media demonstrated an out-pouring of support for the fallen satirists, with #JeSuisCharlie trending worldwide, with conservatives and liberals alike tagging along. Meanwhile, many of the social justice warrior-types have taken it upon themselves to criticize the offensive nature of Hebdo in the wake of the attack rather than defend them.
But are these social justice warriors actually being consistent in their reactions to tragedies? And do progressives have any deeper commitment to respecting free speech among Americans, or is this just a hollow hashtag?
The fact that a girl is wearing skimpy clothing or gets too drunk, and gets sexually assaulted, does not in any way mean that the girl was at fault, or that the attacker is in any way excused.
This is the progressive party line. The freedom to wear and consume whatever you want does not mean freedom from consequences, sure, and we know that alcohol impairs decision-making and can lead to extremely poor choices. But this does not excuse or explain the assault, and the blame lies solely on the attacker. A phrase such as “I don’t condone sexual assault…but she was dressed scantily, and wasted,” would understandably cause outrage in social justice circles.
But is the same logic and unequivocal sympathy for the victim being demonstrated by progressives toward the Hebdo cartoonists? #JeNeSuisPasCharlie has been trending on Twitter throughout the past week, alongside messages displaying sentiments along the lines of “I don’t condone violence, but…free speech does have consequences.” And it is true: the freedom to say what you want does not mean freedom from consequences. But this does not excuse or explain the murder, and blame lies solely on the terrorists.
Granted, this is not entirely an apples to apples comparison. Critics will claim that the Hebdo satirists went to a far greater extent to provoke their attackers than any assault victim. Which is fair, but does that necessarily change the dynamic? Does the content of the Hebdo cartoonists render their murder any less tragic? In either case, the social justice crowd should recognize the parallels and understand why many defenders of free speech and Hebdo are upset by accusations that Hebdo was “kind of asking for it.”
Fortunately for Hebdo’s detractors, their criticism of the publication’s use of free speech is protected by free speech itself. Many commentators have reflected the views of CNN’s Sally Kohn, who explained, “It’s possible to honor and protect the free speech rights of publications like Charlie Hebdo while simultaneously believing such cartoons are unnecessarily disrespectful and offensive.” However, the number of people who actually “honor and protect free speech rights” seems to be disturbingly low.
A yougov.com poll from late September found that 36% of Americans would support a law that would make it a crime to make public comments that advocate “hatred against an identifiable group based on such things as their race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation,” only slightly less than the 38% who said they would oppose it. More troublingly, 51% of democrats polled said they would support such a law, with only 21% standing in opposition.
Everyone who hopped aboard the #JeSuisCharlie trend train, especially progressives, should make no mistake: a law of this sort would have made nearly every Hebdo cartoon that we have seen in the wake of the massacre a criminal act. A law of this sort would have crippled Charlie Hebdo far worse than the bullets of terrorists. It would have suffocated their expression, and forced Charb to live on his knees. While Americans may find it fashionable to show solidarity in the wake of this tragedy, many turn right around and support restrictions of free speech that would have never even allowed a Charlie Hebdo to exist.
And even in the absence of a law explicitly banning such speech, we are currently living in an era, especially on American college campuses, where respect for free speech is being trampled by an overbearing concern for “sensitivity.” Here in Ann Arbor, we recently witnessed the case of Omar Mahmood, a former writer for The Michigan Daily who penned a satirical piece mocking the hypersensitive climate on campus and was subsequently fired, with his apartment door vandalized soon after. Still, when juxtaposed with the crass cartoons of Hebdo, Mahmood’s “Do the Left Thing” reads as innocuously as a weekend weather report. Hebdo’s brand of satire is not the cozy, Colbert Report- style Americans have come to enjoy; it is profoundly offensive, immature, and crude. And in the triggered-happy culture of modern American colleges, it would have been protested into oblivion. Charlie Hebdo wouldn’t have lasted a minute at U of M.
Reactions to the occurrence of tragedies often run high on emotion, and low on reason or reality. To be evaluated properly, they have to be put in the proper context. Unfortunately, reactions to the Hebdo massacre have turned hypocritical, as we have seen some social justice warriors engage in victim blaming, and hashtag activists who stand in faux solidarity with the fallen satirists while supporting laws and a cultural climate that would have cut them off at the knees. And it may be an opportune time for individuals caught in between to re-evalute their views.