In Depth

Seven reasons why people are saying 'Je ne suis pas Charlie'

Hollywood stars among millions to say 'Je suis Charlie' but some are uncomfortable with the meme

Last week's terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris has inspired millions of people to declare "Je suis Charlie". The meme has spread across social media and featured on signs held up by demonstrators around the world. It was shouted out as millions gathered across France on Sunday in unity with the victims and was seen on badges of celebrities at the Golden Globes.

But some people are now saying "Je ne suis pas Charlie". Here are their reasons why...

Groupthink makes it difficult to express nuance

Writing in The Guardian, Roxane Gay says she believes in freedom of expression unequivocally, but personally finds some of the work of Charlie Hebdo distasteful. "Murder is not an acceptable consequence for anything," she says. "Yet it is also an exercise of freedom of expression to express offense at the way satire like Charlie Hebdo's characterises something you hold dear – like your faith, your personhood, your gender, your sexuality, your race or ethnicity." Gay warns that demands for solidarity can "quickly turn into demands for groupthink, making it difficult to express nuance".

Charlie Hebdo 'had no choice' on Mohammed cover

Intolerance provoked this violent reaction

In what the Daily Beast describes as a "dubious" response, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, says he sympathises with Muslims who felt angry about Charlie Hebdo's portrayal of Muhammad. Donohue "unequivocally" condemns killing as a response to insult, but claims that "neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction". Charlie Hebdo had a "long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning of public figures", he says. "What unites Muslims in their anger against Charlie Hebdo is the vulgar manner in which Muhammad has been portrayed. What they object to is being intentionally insulted over the course of many years. On this aspect, I am in total agreement with them."

The hypocrisy of 'hate speech'

Firstly, says David Brooks in the New York Times, it is "inaccurate" for most of us to claim "Je suis Charlie Hebdo" as "most of us don't actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humour that that newspaper specialises in". Secondly, Brooks says, the Paris attack highlights the hypocritical approach the US has to its own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists. A lot of people are quick to "lionise" those who offend Islamist terrorists but are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home, he says. Brooks points to the suppression of speech and the snubbing of speakers holding controversial views, and suggests that if Charlie Hebdo was published on any American university campus it would have been immediately accused of hate speech and shut down.

'Baiting extremists isn't bravely defiant'

In a series of internal emails leaked to the National Review, Al Jazeera English editor Salah-Aldeen Khadr and reporter Mohamed Vall Salem made it clear why they were "not Charlie". In a staff-wide email, Khadr wrote: "Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn't bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well." Salem said that, in his view, what Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech but an abuse of free speech. "It's not about what the drawing said, it was about how they said it," he said. "I condemn those heinous killings, but I'M NOT CHARLIE."

I am not brave enough

Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times says that emotionally and morally he backs the meme, but that he and almost all those declaring their solidarity are not Charlie because they simply lack the courage. Charlie Hebdo's leaders were "maddeningly, preposterously and – in the light of their barbarous end – recklessly brave", ready to defy real death threats and firebomb attacks, says Shrimsley. The journalists braving the most dangerous places in the world could claim the courage to be Charlie, he says. "But the rest of us, like me, who sit safely in an office in western Europe – or all those in other professions who would never contemplate taking the kind of risks those French journalists took daily – we are not Charlie. We are just glad that someone had the courage to be."

Tricky issue cannot be reduced to a slogan

Simon Kelner in The Independent says he feels a sense of unease at the way one of the "most complex and troubling issues" of our world today has been reduced to an "empty expression", stopping people from really thinking about what is going on. Kelner asks if we would be so supportive of Charlie Hebdo if it was an extreme right-wing publication. "Would we be making little brooches to wear on our dinner jackets at Hollywood awards ceremonies? Of course not. Yet the right to freedom of speech is indivisible, and fascists must have just as much liberty as the rest of us." It is a "tricky and complicated" situation to which there are no easy answers, he says. "And it certainly can't be reduced to a hashtag."

Free speech is not a simple good

The Evening Standard's Sam Leith claims we are using the deaths in Paris to enjoy "a nice, self-affirming, essentially infantile holiday from difficulty". Free speech is not in any case a "simple good", says Leith. "Speech is de jure unfree in all sorts of ways: prohibitions on libel and false advertising; copyright protections; laws against incitement to violence and 'hate speech'." It is also abridged de facto, with even self-censorship sometimes amounting to good manners. "The law may not stop me calling you a n*****, but that doesn't mean I take an important stand for liberty by doing so." And with requests from MI5 for more powers of invasive surveillance, will people be forced to become more guarded in their private communications? "Nous ne sommes pas Charlie," says Leith, "and insisting won't make it so".


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