This past week was shocking and horrifying for many people. The atrocious attacks on the satirical comic-based magazine Charlie Hebdo, followed by the siege on Hyper Cacher (a Jewish deli), left many shocked and saddened. This article seeks to summarise the plethora of views articulated primarily on social media dealing with these awful events. As people came to terms with the events, and the consequences that followed, they sought to articulate their positions on the attacks. Thus, this piece seeks to provide a general overview of the trends in the arguments presented. This article will not be an exhaustive overview, nor will it seek to outline all existing opinions surrounding the events; it will outline the thoughts, ideas, and general views posted in the days following the events.
Several points need to be noted prior to the main piece itself. The first is an acknowledgement that the piece has an inherent selection bias: the Facebook and Twitter comments gathered are a function of the network available to me. That being said, the statements echoed here and taken from social media are not my own and therefore do not necessarily echo my opinions nor the opinions of Al Miraah. Further. Putting the opinions here is not an endorsement of the views displayed.
Finally, I would like to express my deepest condolences for those harmed and affected by the events described. I send out my thoughts to the families of the victims and to the people of France.
1. The Basics
The following category subsumes the general feedback on social media and includes the views that became most present immediately during and following the attacks.
a) General Solidarity (i.e. #JeSuisCharlie, I’m Not Afraid)
Summary of Views: The immediate reaction had by many was to find a common way to express solidarity for those affected, and to reach out through social media by a common slogan: JeSuisCharlie. Many in Paris gathered in the Place de la Republique to demonstrate that they would not be shaken by the events, and put up posters saying “I’m Not Afraid”.
My take: It is a natural reaction to try to find common ground and support in light of a tragedy.
b) Call for support of freedom of speech/journalist rights/satire
Summary of views: Journalism, freedom of speech, and satire are all admirable things worth fighting for and protecting. Beyond that, violence is never the answer to offensive material. Insert Voltaire Quote Here.
My take: Freedom of speech is indeed an inalienable right necessary to protect those speaking on the fringes of majority statements. It protects the right to opposition, alternative beliefs and plurality in democracies. But to me, as in most things democratic, where there is a right there is a responsibility. More on that later…
c) Calls for Inclusion and Solidarity (i.e. #JeSuisAhmed, #JeSuisJuif)
Summary of views: Following the attacks, numerous people felt conflicted in getting behind the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag to express solidarity, and so began adopting alternate ways to show solidarity without fully identifying just with the Charlie Hebdo publication.
My take: Identify how you want to identify. Any solidarity movement can be as inclusive or exclusive as you yourself define it to be.
d) Calls for a cessation of violence
Summary of views: This is a pretty wide category and varies from “the pen is mightier than the sword” reactions to “retaliatory attacks on Muslims isn’t the answer”.
My take: Possibly the least controversial idea in this list. Violence is never the answer.
2. Critical Approaches
This is a varied section mainly focusing on responses and reactions to initial responses.
a) On the limits of freedom of speech (hate speech)
Summary of views: Again, this section holds a variety of opinions within it. Starting with the Brooks vs. Rabbi Yoffie interplay, their view holds that freedom of speech is indeed an inalienable right, but common sense (or morality as Brooks argues) dictates a responsibility for the individual. They differ with respect to whether society at large has a responsibility to hear those who breach this contract. Brooks argues that within a university setting, freedom of speech is paramount, especially with respect to differing extremist views. Society can then choose to use its better judgement to ignore or evade these speakers. Rabbi Yoffie takes this a step further in that society’s choice can be extrapolated to “safe places,” such as places of worship (one should not be subjected to hate speech in church, for example). Where Andrew Basso comes in is to conceptualise and solidify the limitation of responsibility: that to the extent which speech leads to dehumanisation and violence against a group it is wrong. Feel free to read the full definition on his blog listed above.
My take: A right is a right unfortunately, but a healthy dose of empathy and common sense never hurts. The issue I have with limitations placed on a right is our inability to qualify and quantify them. How much hate speech is irresponsible? How much racism leads to dehumanisation? The only way is ex post facto, whereby the genocidal action is seen to have been justified by the speech act. However, this proves too late to determine whether a speech act alone will lead to genocide. Perhaps the answer lies within the framework of individual rights, when an individual feels “personally threatened” and that is sufficient cause to deem a speech act as breaching the limitation of leading towards violence. More on this later…
b) On the limits of satire as a genre (and the right to criticise Charlie Hebdo specifically)
Summary of views: All of the above authors condemn the killings but feel that condemnation or a lack of acceptance is appropriate towards Charlie Hebdo as well. Many feel that satire has a greater purpose and that there is a nuance between great satire and what Charlie Hebdo does. The important point for all is that the attacks did not create a moral binary, with the attackers/terrorists as “bad” and what they attacked as “good” rather there is a nuance that doesn’t involve condoning the attacks or attacking the victims.
My take: I think that the last comic, Joe Sacco’s comic, raises an extremely valid point. The point being that every joke — or satirical comic in this case — happens within a context. Humour has its place in society, as does well-thought-out satire, but attacking historically marginalised populations who are currently being discriminated against serves less to bring humorous critique to the world and rather serves to further dehumanise them. I personally believe that a Canadian newspaper running “jokes” on missing Native American women would be in poor taste. A joke on Muslims in France, by a French newspaper no less, ignores the current state of the world and of France specifically. To me, it’s a cheap shot and lacks common sense.
c) Clash of civilisations and reactions to rhetoric
Summary of views: Much of the rhetoric being used to describe the attacks invokes Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations (which I will not link to here and don’t really suggest reading) in which our world is split by a fault line of good Western values and evil, backwards Islam. The view is that this understanding of the world not only oversimplifies things but is dangerous and racist. Again, in reacting to and understand the atrocities that took place this week in France, we should look beyond simplistic understandings.
My take: Religions don’t fight each other, people using religion to justify their actions fight each other.
d) Freedom of speech means being allowed to criticise Islam as well
Summary of views: In order to properly pay our respects to those that died we should not be afraid to criticise Islam and Muslims.
My take: By all means, criticise Islam and Muslims. If the logic behind not criticising them up to now has been fear of retribution and censorship, feel free to do so. However, it seems strange that the only thing holding Pouliot back has been fear of reprisals. Maybe choose not to criticise those around you because it makes you look racist and is morally reprehensible. But if you insist on waving around your white privilege at others’ expense, by all means.
3. The Messed Up Approaches (i.e. blatant racism, calls to violence and other disgusting stuff)
Unlike previous sections, I will not be giving my take because all of these speak for themselves and do not deserve discussion. I also don’t want to cite these people, you can find them if you so truly desire.
a) Celebrations/condonement of the attacks
c) Rupert Murdoch
4. Miscellaneous (i.e. interesting anecdotes I could not categorise)
5. Personal Experiences
a) Being Muslim in France (from a woman’s perspective)
The main point I drew from these reactions is that freedom of speech and respect for religions are not mutually exclusive. There are subtle nuances that many people have elaborated upon here and will continue to discuss. Satire and humour at the expense of marginalised communities, although fully within the rights of all, seems wrong for many reasons. It carries an especially different tone when it’s done by the majority at the expense of those who have been systematically and institutionally discriminated against, as is the case in France. This highlights the importance of having common decency, respect, and above all else, empathy within society. Although these are not enshrined legalised responsibilities, they are the necessary counterpart to individual rights. It is not too far of a stretch to understand how words can affect a community.
On a more political note, and I am sure these points will trickle in from the academic community, these attacks highlight the need to further investigate domestic reform and the implementation of better “countering violent extremism” (CVE) policies. It means something that the attacks in France, Canada, and Australia were all at the hands of domestic residents.
A serious discussion needs to be had on integration, isolation, and radicalisation existing in the Western world.
From a staunch Realist perspective of International Relations, this entire article and all the accompanying articles/marches/solidarity reactions are a disaster. IS and AQ yet again have had it demonstrated to them that the best way to gain international attention and bolster their international standing is to orchestrate terror attacks on Western civilians. With just a small number of people they can gain more attention (and with it recruitment, funding, and legitimacy) than killing 2,000 people somewhere no one cares about.
To conclude, a final point about freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a right, not unlike other enshrined rights, and carries with it a responsibility. I do not believe that limits to freedom of speech need to be adopted across legislative assemblies internationally, but I do believe in consistency. If “religious incitement” is banned, other forms of hate speech need to go too. However, if all speech is deemed permissible then society carries with it a responsibility to respect all its members.
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Ania Gaboune holds an MSc in International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic from the University of Edinburgh.Follow @AniaGab