As the philosopher and author, Voltaire, once said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to your death the right to say it.” What is essentially a debate over this quote and the limits of free speech is now more relevant than ever in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
When a tragedy of massive proportions happens, its normal (at least in the U.S.) for those affected on an emotional level to launch social media campaigns, support corresponding charities and take action to help the victims and their families. But now some people are claiming the “Je Suis” (“I am”) trend originally used to show sympathy to the victims of the recent shootings at French magazine Charlie Hebdo is getting old.
“Je Suis Charlie Hebdo” was initially coined in the wake of attacks by Islamic extremists who were punishing editors of the French magazine for “making a mockery of the Prophet Mohammed” via various political cartoons. Needless to say, this dredged up all kinds of issues related to freedom of speech, and the extent to which one is legally and philosophically able to offend others.
Now, the phrase “Je Suis” (insert name here) is cropping up everywhere and, as the Herald Scotland reported, is being used to defend other causes than the one from which it originated. The Herald Scotland added that “Je Suis D&G” was recently used by fashion designer Stefano Gabbana to protect his right to free speech after his words landed the wrong way on Elton John’s ears. Several weeks ago, Gabbana condemned the use of In-Vitro Fertilization for homosexual parents looking to have children, angering Mr. John and causing the latter to boycott D&G. One Twitter user summed the essence of the “Je Suis” debate up flawlessly.
— Chris Owens (@chriso627) March 31, 2015
Along the same lines, the L.A. Times wrote an Op-Ed blaming the phrase “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo” for its divisiveness, stating that “…[saying “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo“, or “I Am Charlie Hebdo“] not only fails to address the urgent cultural and political problems that led to the massacre, it also has made them far worse.” The Times blames “Je Suis” for creating a larger gap between East and West, between those who unconditionally support free speech and those who beat the “Je Suis” drum to death in order to censor that which they find unacceptable.
This is probably not the first time nor the last free speech vs. the ability to offend will be pitted against one another in a duel for political domination, but it could be the most important to date. While it’s no surprise that Islamic extremists don’t like people who bash Islam, the comments made by Charlie Hebdo‘s editors would likely not offend anyone outside of the Muslim world, and might even sit well with some non-violent, non-radicalized Muslims.
Therefore, we could say to some degree that offensiveness is subjective when filtered through the lens of various social, economic, and cultural factors. With this in mind, does Charlie Hebdo have the right to publish whatever material it desires, or does doing so make a mockery of Islam and its followers, both radicalized and moderate?
[Image Credit: Franck Prevel, Getty Images]