Did you proclaim yourself to be Charlie? Here’s my little bit of psychoanalysis on what using the hashtag #jesuischarlie says about us, and why social media was our platform of choice to rally against the infringement of Free Speech.
Even a light-hearted blog has to take a turn for the serious on occasion, and when the right to free journalism is called into question, there seems no better time. Here’s my humble opinion on a social media rally that has generated universal support and criticism – I present you with my own interpretation of ‘being Charlie,’ for the everyman. Whilst we’re fighting for ‘freedom of speech,’ I decided that the best rebuttal to the breach of this principal is the expressing of your own opinion, in the hope that, in the name of what everyone is apparently protesting for, it will be accepted, understood, maybe contradicted but nonetheless, you won’t be victimised for voicing it.
Two days ago, I posted a picture, a ‘throwback,’ you know the cliché, to summer, when I had been in Paris, smiling under L’Arc de Triumphe. ‘My heart is with Paris today,’ I captioned it, and reached for the # key, ready to link it up to the wealth of other photos showing their consolidation for the victims of the Paris attacks, and then I pondered in a moment of existential crisis. Suddenly unsure of what I was about to proclaim myself to be, I had to pose to myself the latest fundamental question of this last week… AM I Charlie?
Just another social media junkie?
Let’s start by putting it all into context. This latest attack has gathered a massive response; from news reporters, bloggers, politicians and creative individuals including journalists, writers and illustrators alike, arguably because of its breaching of the right of free speech, an ideal that comes with a lot of ambiguity. This hashtag #jesuischarlie has gone global, being tweeted around 5 million times. Even at the Golden Globes were celebrities such a Joshua Jackson and Diane Kruger seen posing for photographs holding a ‘je suis Charlie,’ sign as if it were the latest Parisian accessory to be endorsed on the red carpet. Whilst fully supporting the incredible reaction to this event, and in fact being completely astounded in the power of humanity to bring exceeding goodness and strength out of a tragic situation, I can’t help but wonder what exactly it is we have in common that unites us all under the umbrella of ‘being Charlie.’ If it is anything at all, that is. Or maybe we have just mistranslated its soft french meaning, interpreting ‘I am Charlie,’ as, ‘I support the right to be able to speak freely.’
Yet there is a part of me that even wondered if the extent to which the hashtag went so viral simply demonstrated a desire to be involved, the same desire to be a part of something that governs the trends we see on social media. With relation to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, this same part of me pondered if putting a # in front of an ambiguous startement and endorsing it with the opinions and views of many talented individuals simply duped us into thinking that the latest craze on the creative scene was indeed to BE Charlie, without really knowing what we meant.
A little harsh? Let me explain my reasoning. The magazine has made the bold decision of repeating the act that sparked off the whole attack; depicting the prophet Mohammed, this time in all its glory ‘sur la couverture,’ with the caricature declaring himself part of the social media phenomenon – holding a banner declaring ‘je suis Charlie. I was slightly surprised by the words chosen by Richard Malka to defend the magazine’s latest cover, who told France Info radio ‘We will not give in. The spirit of ‘I am Charlie’ means the right to blaspheme.’
I had to put my hands up in self-defence here. As an individual endorser of the hashtag, I thought I was simply just declaring my sympathy for the victims and their families, and my belief that the right to free speech should not be violated in such a horrific way. Nonetheless, I don’t believe in exercising this right to deliberately cause offence. There are so many muslims whose religion has been given a very bad name through the action of such extremist groups. So although I love the message of Charlie Hebdo’s new cover, that highlights that the underlying principals of each religion are indeed benevolent and contravene such acts of terror, should we necessarily be re-offending a whole religion, including those ‘silent listeners’ who took it on the chin, who didn’t voice their offence yet nonetheless had their beliefs contravened? Take Ahmed Meribet, for instance – the Muslim police officer, who died defending the magazines right to go against the beliefs of his own religion. Whilst absolute freedom of speech is an ideal, I’d personally argue that practically, in the context of the world we live in which is so susceptible to racism and religious discrimination, a little sensitivity is required. Although the extremist attackers reacted in a horrifically violent matter, we can’t deny that other religions have retaliated to offensive depictions of their holy figures – remember that it was the Vatican who took legal action against Benetton over their banned UNHATE campaign featuring Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading Egyptian imam.
But surely if this is all that being Charlie encapsulates, why is it ‘Charlie’ who has become the new martyr for free speech that we all relate to so much? Why not the Jews, killed in the Kosher supermarket siege? Why not Ahmed, a personification of the benevolent qualities of Islam? Why not the Nigerians, whose innocent villagers were simultaneously slaughtered by Boko Haram’s most horrific attack yet? These ideas all featured on banners in the Unity march, so why has is ‘Charlie’ been so infectious? What is it about the moral figure of ‘Charlie’ that unites us, despite his blasphemy, despite his deliberate provocations?
To answer this, I want to look at the online reaction to both the attack, and the new magazine cover. Alongside an event that questions the borders of freedom of speech comes a huge backlash of opinions from those who publicly exercise this right in their career; the journalists, the authors, the artists, the illustrators. The internet has been flooded with a wealth of articles -and isn’t this the most fitting response possible; in an attack where free speech has been called into question, we have retaliated in an explosion of creativity and opinions. Nonetheless, how could all these opinions ever be in concordance? Obviously, there’s going to be disagreements. But how to react… this is where it gets interesting. Almost every one of these articles has sparked off a debate, a list of insults, even threats… people ‘disgusted’ with what they have read. Surely, whist we are all defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to religious satire with our self-proclaiming as ‘Charlie,’ aren’t we supporting the right to express our own opinions without being victimised?
Even though the idea is being put into play on a much smaller scale here, I have to ask, why are personal opinions here generating so much criticism? Why are some favoured, whilst others picked apart? What happened to the principals behind the Unity march, the ‘togetherness’ that the aftermath of this attack was supposed to give us? We’re all fighting for the right to freedom of speech, yet criticising people who use it. Surely, in the world of online journalism, the best example we can give of unity is the acceptance of different opinions, and the celebration of the diversity they bring us. In this simple practice, we’d be creating a microcosm for the real world, where opinions are expressed, appreciated, disagreed with; but no one gets hurt simply for expressing them.
However, this mutual sharing of opinions is to be valued, and it is in having an opinion ourselves that we resist the terror that tried to take this away. Here I found the answer to my question. The backbone of social media revolves around this same sharing of opinions, pictures, and ideas. We’re not all journalists, but sites like Facebook and Twitter provide our own daily tool to express our opinions to the masses. We create an online diversity, a society that thrives on communication and the sharing of things we like, without being criticised for our individuality. So when this value, on a much greater scale, was called into question, we used this same media to protest, as the everyman’s platform to express freedom of opinion. We exerted our defiance in 140 characters, retaliating by using the device at our disposal to voice our thoughts when this freedom of expression was called into question. Whilst for example, the killings in Nigeria were exceedingly tragic, it was Charlie who stood up to voice exactly why they were wrong. ‘We should be celebrating our differences’ Charlie said, ‘learning from them, rather than exterminating them.’ Charlie reminded us of the small difference we can make to a world where diversity is called into question, simply by expressing our own, unique opinion.
To return to where we started, I’ll go back to my own use of the #jesuischarlie hashtag. I initially wanted to delete my post, as I felt that what it stood for had become so blurred I didn’t necessarily agree with all that ‘being Charlie’ entailed. But it’s still there, the filtered picture of the Arc de Triomphe in all its glory. This is because, on thinking more, I realised maybe ‘blurred’ is a good thing. We don’t all have to be ‘Charlie’ in his entirety; we don’t have to embody everything that Charlie Hebdo stood for. All we are declaring is that there is a part of us, a little bit inside everybody that relies on and identifies with something encapsulated in Charlie Hebdo. For me, it is the freedom of expression without hurtful criticism. For others, it could be the ability to bring goodness from a terrible situation. Or for some; just being able to forgive, or even to take religious and cultural differences in a lighthearted manner. To not be afraid. Nonetheless, in being Charlie, we celebrate our differences.
The # has become a symbol of unity, bringing together all our opinions together under one big umbrella of diversity. Arguably, it is more about what it stands for, than what it states. Being Charlie is to express our own viewpoint, and the # unites all these views together, reminding us of what we have in common. To take to social media to rally is to exercise your own platform to exert freedom of opinion. And it is being Charlie, that we are all reminded of the little power we do have in the face of a tragic situation.