Je ne sais pas si je suis Charlie

I have wrestled long and hard with my reactions to the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices – and my reactions to the responses I’ve seen and read. The pieces that I found (and I have not read exhaustively on the topic) that come closest to echoing my feelings are Teju Cole’s “Unmournable Bodies” in the January 9th edition of The New Yorker and David Brooks’ piece in The Opinion Pages of January 8th’s The New York Times. I think that Teju Cole’s piece is brilliant, particularly in its differentiation between supporting the right to free speech and supporting the speech itself; and I agree with David Brooks’s warnings that the silencing of dissenting, unpopular or offensive voices will create a society with, at best, only a tenuous claim to promoting free speech.

While these articles have come the closest to saying what I feel, both about the specifics of what happened at Charlie Hebdo and the larger issues of post-colonialism, free speech and offense, neither of them quite says what is in my heart, which is:

I believe in the right of artists to make art.

  • Not just art I like
  • Not just art I understand
  • Not just art that I consider “good”
  • Not just art with which I am comfortable

I believe that art has a voice in politics and can contribute to social change* – and I believe that so fervently that I spent five years of my life researching and writing a doctoral thesis on the topic. During those five years I spent time with artists in war zones, in recovering war-zones and in post-conflict societies. In 2011, as I was wrapping up my doctoral process, one of the artists I interviewed (Juliano Mer-Khamis) was killed. He walked out of the theatre he founded in Jenin Camp and was shot to death while he was sitting in his car. Like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, he had previously received death threats. Like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, he continued his work. And like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, he paid for his work with his life.

I don’t think it matters if you liked Juliano’s plays (I did) just as I don’t think it matters if you appreciated Charlie Hebdo’s satire (I didn’t). What matters is that killing people isn’t the way to handle things you don’t like. We can no longer have a conversation with the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, with Juliano, with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh because they are dead. If we accept that it is alright to silence the unpopular voice – intimating, even, that the silencing was inevitable because with such racist, culturally insensitive content they should have known better, then we are in danger of ending up in a society where none of us can breathe.



*A corollary to this is that I think social change is inherently painful and makes people uncomfortable, but that’s another topic.

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One Response to Je ne sais pas si je suis Charlie

  1. Spot on. It requires something of us as individuals and societies for which we are often ill-equipped – the ability to denounce the message without killing (literally as well as figuratively) the messenger. The core of the New Yorker piece is this: “…it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”

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