je suis toujours charlie

First, let me make a request. If you have something to say about anything I’ve written here, I’d prefer you say it in the comments rather than send me an email. That way your point of view will be most accurately represented.

I received some email (well, a few emails…okay, three…I received three emails) that I think deserve a response. Two of them essentially suggested Stéphane Charbonnier and his compatriots at Charlie Hebdo were at least marginally complicit in their own murders. Neither writer actually said that directly, but it seemed implicit. I should also say both writers were firm in stating that there was absolutely no justification for the murder of the twelve people killed in the attack. Both were explicit in stating they were passionate supporters of free expression. However, both took the “don’t poke a stick at a mad dog” approach.

Charbonnier was an egotistical narcissist. He knew he was provoking a group who responded to insults with violence, yet he insisted on doing it — and now there are twelve families who’ve lost loved one. All because Charb wanted to be a bad boy.

And this:

They knew those offensive cartoons of Muhommed [sic] would be insulting, they didn’t have to publish them, but they did anyways. What did they expect? That the terrorists would write a strongly-worded letter to the editor?

Were the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo being reckless? Yeah, probably. But that’s the thing about free expression, isn’t it. If you limit it to ‘reasonable’ speech, then it’s no longer free expression. If free expression doesn’t protect the extremes, then it’s worthless.

"I am the Prophet, fool."

“I am the Prophet, fool!”

The third email misinterpreted my point entirely. Or maybe I simply wasn’t as clear as I’d hoped to be. Here’s the meat of his email:

It’s long past time people started saying fuck you to Muslim terrorists. They should republish every comic that insults Mohammed.

I wasn’t saying ‘fuck you’ to Muslim terrorists. Well, yeah, okay, I was saying that, but not JUST to Muslim terrorists. I was saying ‘fuck you’ to ALL extremists who think violence is an acceptable way to express disagreement or to silence those who disagree with them. That same ‘fuck you’ applies to Christians who shoot abortion providers, to Sovereign Citizens who shoot law enforcement officers, to environmentalists who set traps that hurt or kill loggers, even to that woman in Vancouver who put logs and rocks on mountain bike trails.

Let me also say this: if anybody is using the attack on Charlie Hebdo to justify their hatred of Islam, then that ‘fuck you’ applies to them too.

Little Jesus

Little Jesus

Finally, there’s this — a comment addressed to me on Facebook that was unfortunately removed before I could respond:

Greg, respectfully, if someone firebombs Westboro Baptist Church, are you going to change your avatar to ‘Je Suis GodHatesFags” by the same rationale? They operate under the same freedoms and would have been attacked by the same type of motives.

It’s a tragedy that this all happened; to pretend it was an attack on free speech is naive. It was an attack by twisted people against deliberate antagonism and provocation. I’m not excusing anything; the murderers were wrong in the worst of ways. But nobody gains anything by cartoons showing Muslim women with burkas shoved up their asses, or someone else’s prophet being born out of a man’s asshole, or posing in a pornographic film, or whatever, unless bigotry and dehumanizing people for the sake of doing so is your thing. It’s not for me.

That’s a perfectly valid response, and those are valid opinions. Would I change my avatar to Je suis GodHatesFags? No, of course not. But I would defend (and have defended) the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to express their ugly opinions. Here’s the difference between the WBS and Charlie Hebdo: the WBC is claiming only one viewpoint (theirs, of course) is valid and deserving of respect, whereas Charlie Hebdo has been saying no viewpoint is deserving of unqualified respect.

Nobody gains anything from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? I disagree. Yes, many of them are offensive. Deliberately offensive. Intended to offend. But Charlie Hebdo has been an equal opportunity offender; they offended everybody with equal enthusiasm. I’d argue that society at large gains from that approach, if only because it expands the range of acceptable opinions.

hebdo offensive4

Is this offensive? Yes, totally.


Here’s a true thing: the writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did nothing to elevate the marketplace of ideas. But they certainly contributed to it. They actively participated in the marketplace of ideas. They took the position that nothing is so important that it can’t be mocked. They said the more important a person or an idea is, the more that person or idea needs to be mocked. Nothing is sacred.

Yes, a lot of their cartoons are offensive and childish and mocking and unfair — and bless them for it. Are some of their cartoons racist? Yes…and no. They certainly used racial and ethnic stereotypes, but from what I’ve seen they used them to mock racial and ethnic stereotypes (which, by the way, is the same approach used by R. Crumb). Are some of the cartoons cruel? Yes. Do they make a point? Yes. We may not all agree with their point or the way they make it, but it’s hard to argue that the cartoons are…well, pointless.

Is THIS racist? Well, yeah, it is.

Is THIS racist? Well, yeah, it is.

One way to look at Charlie Hebdo is through the lens of that Hans Christian Anderson tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Charlie Hebdo is the crude, irritating, badly-behaved child along the parade route who makes farting noises and points and laughs and makes fun of the Emperor’s bare ass.

Are there better ways to point out the Emperor’s bare ass? Yes, absolutely. But if we’re to protect free expression, we have to defend the right of publications like Charlie Hebdo to be offensive. It’s not necessary to approve of Charlie Hebdo. But it is important to support them — especially now.



13 thoughts on “je suis toujours charlie

  1. I’d like to get your thoughts on something a friend of mine is bringing up in our conversations about this event. There’s an angle from which my friend is choosing to look at this tragedy that is broader than just the free speech issue…although it ties into the notion of freedom. This angle is that the climate in France specifically, regarding Islam, cultural assimilation and immigration, somehow played into this attack. That this wasn’t just about the cartoons, but that these other issues added fuel to the fire, so to speak…or the cartoons added fuel to the fire of the broader issues. What do you think?


    • France has a long and weird history with the Muslim world that goes all the way back to the era of French imperialism. And given their history in Algeria, I think the least surprising thing we’ve learned about the men who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders is that they’re of Algerian descent.

      That history is complicated by how aggressively France has asserted the wall between church and state. Tensions in the Muslim community certainly got a LOT worse a decade ago when France passed a law banning displays of ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in schools, including the hijab. And then, of course, there’s the volatile combination of unemployment and poverty.

      But then again, France also has a history of providing refuge for Muslim leaders who’ve been basically booted from their homelands. Don’t forget that the Ayatollah Khomeini basically organized the Iranian revolution against the Shah from a Paris suburb.

      There’s a lot of sociological theory that supports the notion that dissatisfaction with one’s situation actually increases as one’s situation gradually improved. The idea is that once you see the potential for a better life you’re less willing to settle for what you actually have. So yeah, I’m sure the social circumstances of the Muslim community in France contributes a LOT to their general dissatisfaction. All it really takes is a spark to turn that into violence. But that’s not unique to Muslims.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think there may even be a bigger picture. The whole idea of taking someone’s life because they disrespected you, your family, your deity, your political philosophy…. whatever…. is absurd. It doesn’t work if you are a gangsta doing a drive-by for being dissed, it doesn’t work for a LEO grabbing up a citizen for not showing them their due reverence, and definitely not for anyone that generally doesn’t view the world the same way. What ever happened to “stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”… I think we need to reread Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. SHEESH people get over yourselves!


    • I agree…thought mostly in theory. If you spend your life being disrespected, I can understand the desire to lash out and make the world as miserable as you are.

      Years ago I had a client–a young African American guy — who was tooling drunkenly around the sticks of New Hampshire with a white friend. The friend was driving an open-door Jeep; he lost control of the Jeep, fell out, and the Jeep ran over him. My client picked the guy up, put him in the passenger seat, and took off to find help. As he drove, he found himself thinking “I’m in New Hampshire, and I’ve got a dead white guy with me.” He figured no matter what he did next, he was going to end up behind bars…even if it was just temporarily while they investigated what happened. The futility of it all was enough to make him dump the body and try to make it back to Massachusetts. He was caught speeding, and then compounded his trouble by trying to escape. If he’d had a gun, I’ve no doubt he’d have opened fire on the police officer.

      As it was, he ended up charged with Manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, abuse of a corpse, and a handful of other crimes — and he wasn’t even responsible for the initial incident. Sometimes when you’re convinced the world isn’t fair, you just go a bit nuts. None of which is a valid excuse, of course. Just that unfocused rage can be understandable.


  3. Hi there, I am glad I came across your page, being French (living in Ireland), and a long time reader of Charlie Hebdo, I am delighted to find such a brilliant analysis. Yes Charlie was offensive, childish, scandalous, irreverent and more. And even as a regular reader, some of the content made me sometime cringe.
    But the simple fact that nobody was immune to their attacks, that no religion/government/star/politician was safe from having their face included on their front page, make them a necessary element in the free-speech mechanism.
    Organization always targeting the same group of people, inciting hatred, basing their arguments on lies, have an agenda. And must be confronted in the name of democracy and on this often forgotten idea that we are all equal members of society.
    However, a satirical newspaper slagging everyone, and often themselves, is just a necessary reminder of this most basic of rights, the right to laugh at everything, for the sake of humour. Without hatred, proselytism or personal gain.
    Yes religious freedom must be guaranteed, and so must be the freedom not to believe. France is trying hard to safeguard secularism (laicite). And making sure to try and accommodate different beliefs/practices in line with the values of our republic. And not doing too bad of a job.
    Of course the people who carried out those attacks are as far removed from Islam as Anders Breivik (from the Norway massacre) is removed from Christian values. (Even if the latter was somehow a lone wolf in the papers and not a terrorist !? )
    All religions are peaceful in nature, only the twisted mind of Man changes that and uses it to justify horrible acts

    Anyway thanks. And while I was here I also very much enjoyed the photo gallery :)

    With regards

    Eddy Laferrere


  4. A funny thing, that “Freedom of Speech”. So very many people see it meaning so many different things. What is appropriate and what it includes has become as clouded as the skies surrounding a hurricane. What was first intended to allow citizens to speak out against government has now given way to acts of disruption and violence against others. Appropriate behavior? Perhaps not in a civilized society. But one factor rings through: ” If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime “.


    • I don’t think free speech ever includes violence. Acts of disruption, sure — if nonviolent or within the confines of the law. I mean, free speech means you can stand outside the nuclear plant and make a fuss, but you can’t chain yourself to the gate. You can protest outside a Wall Street bank, but you can’t prohibit folks from entering. Free expression allows folks to be a pain in the ass, but only up to a point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.