“Definitions of hate are never constant; they shift, focus, and refocus in relationship to events. During war, racial hatred looks like patriotism.”
—Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness and Justice in American Culture and Politics
The outpouring of outrage and concern following the lethal shooting of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine is understandable.
Many people want to express their shock and grief. They want to stand against the censoring, repressive, and violent impulses represented—symbolically and actually—by the gunmen.
There is no ethical justification for the killings. None. No one “deserved to die.”
Yet the reaction to these tragic killings seamlessly moves forward within an easily manipulated narrative. This story is compellingly shaped by the twin themes of terrorism and destruction of freedom of speech. Because this narrative is framed by the politics of fear, resentment, and vengeance, it has become as volatile and potentially incendiary as the actions that produced it.
Fear always has a payoff. The fright we experience may manifest in anxiety or rage, or both. But it inevitably convinces us that we are in a fundamental, life and death struggle between angels and devils. In this struggle, we are always, and unambiguously, on the side of virtue. Thus, anything we do, often in fear and anger, is always self-justified.
This is the result, and often the calamity, of reducing single events that arise out of complex political and cultural histories to simplistic stories: stories always predicated on false dualisms: good versus evil, heroism versus cowardice, and freedom versus repression.
Je Suis Charlie. We Are Charlie. The slogan signals solidarity with those who were brutally murdered. It also stands as a rallying cry, decrying artistic and journalistic censorship. Many, on social media, have characterized this as a flashpoint moment that will determine whether freedom will survive or be crushed. To stand for Charlie is meant to be, unequivocally, a defense of liberty.
But this expression of solidarity is hardly universal. The reality is that Je Suis Charlie emerged from, and continues to gather strength through, the same demonized images of Islam and Muslims that saturate the so-called “war on terror;” images that fuel nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment in both Europe and the United States. Not only are humanitarian expressions reflected in the many posts to the Twitter hashtag but also virulently Islamophobic sentiments.
In the wake of the Paris killings, Marie Le Pen, who leads France’s far-right National Front, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric and positions have gained momentum in a difficult economic moment, proclaimed, “The Islamists have declared war on France.” In conjunction with supporting a national referendum on reinstating the death penalty, she has recently characterized “national unity” rallies to bring people together across cultural, religious, and political chasms as “a pathetic political maneuver.”
Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks gunshots have been fired and grenades or firebombs hurled at various mosques across France. Thankfully, no one’s been seriously injured or killed. Yet. But a backlash is developing.
In the United States, aggressive conservative-right exploitation is underway, with pundits and politicians claiming that President Obama and Hillary Clinton “empathize” with the killers. The attacks have been used to criticize domestic protests against police violence, and voice support for torture. In New York City, former mayor Rudy Giuliani is calling for greater police surveillance of Muslim communities. Exhortations to Americans to “arm ourselves” are proliferating.
Nothing here is new. Western demonization of Islam drove the Crusades and, in the US, infused the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and again mushroomed in the post 9/11 era.
Beyond its obvious racism, the Western narrative of “terrorism” is highly selective; it is also hypocritical. It obscures attention to the reality that violence we attribute to “terrorists” and “extremists” is not uncommon and aberrant. It is, disturbingly, an explosive, public expression of the kinds of structural violence that are commonplace in the United States and Europe.
We would rather talk about terrorists, for example, than the histories and widespread use of state-sponsored torture and assassination, racial profiling in policing, and police/military violence directed against members of vulnerable and marginalized communities. Je Suis Charlie does not include a witness against those forms of violence; it does not even acknowledge them. Once again, we are trapped in a reductive, distorted narrative of us v. them.
The championing of Charlie Hebdo as the standard-bearer for freedom of expression and liberty often forecloses examination of the magazine’s routine use of deliberately racist, misogynist imagery as “satire.” Censorship is never the right answer to highly charged social, political, and cultural disagreements and tensions. But it is possible to mourn the deaths and condemn both the killings and targeting of a publication without uncritically embracing Charlie’s content and declaring its creators to be freedom’s heroes.
This is the second recent instance—the first was the ginned-up drama over the Sony hack and the assassination movie comedy The Interview—in which mass media promoted an embrace of intentionally racist imagery as simple, uncomplicated support of free speech. It ignores the countless ways in which other political and religious interests are censoring school texts and curricula, cultural work, and the freedom of academics to speak their minds.
Just because the stampede heads off in a particular direction when some horror unfolds, we are not obligated to join it. It doesn’t mean we have to embrace racism and misogyny as confirmation of patriotism and our own humanity. It doesn’t mean we embrace Islamophobia.
We can deplore, grieve, and respond to the killings; we can—and must—support freedom of speech. But that doesn’t mean we must also divert our attention from other forms of structural violence that are normative to our own society—or from the images and narratives that fuel them.
And most of all, it doesn’t mean that, uncritically, Je Suis Charlie.
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana.
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he most recently coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.