First: a deflection; I agree with you. Really.

I know that freedom of speech is not available to everyone. I know that it is employed by hegemonic (patriarchal, racist, capitalist) powers to give credence to the lines they push, while it is often unavailable to those who do not toe this line. Power is not, here, shared equally. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that anyone analysing the situation from a critical perspective feels the need to – first – acknowledge the evil of the attack because, without this qualifier, they risk charges, at best, of insensitivity, but probably much worse.

I am not Charlie to defend Charlie Hebdo as such; neither am I condemning its content. This content simply is and should continue to be, regardless of moral merit. I am not Charlie to defend some ‘western civilization’ from its barbaric rival. The killers were of this civilisation; even dreaming in French. Nor some freedom born with the guillotining of a French king; a freedom uniquely of the west, routed in its geography. (‘You are in France now and these are the rules we play by.’) Finally, I am not Charlie in order to defend an abstract concept current in the minds of liberal philosophes, I will leave this up to them.

Rather, I am Charlie because of all his brothers and sisters who – also – face threats (daily, insidious) to their multifaceted voices. Because I feel – I know – that such voices are their greatest assets, the most powerful weapons in the ill-equipped arsenal of the oppressed.

To make my point I shall offer some equations between one thing people find offensive* – Charlie Hebdo – and a few other things that other (often more powerful) find equally ‘offensive’. Homosexuals kissing in public, people wearing short skirts, the Muslim call to prayer. These are all expressions that should be, like those in Charlie, protected by the same freedoms. And just like Charlie’s they are not ‘necessary’: people could get on (have got on), perhaps less happily, without them.

Yet, each of these expressions have their detractors, those who would sorely like to see them disappear. Public displays of homosexuality are disgusting. People wearing short skirts sexualise themselves and are therefore open to abuse. The Muslim call to prayer is noisy, disturbing: the imposition of an ‘alien culture’.

These examples cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. They have happened, are happening and will continue to do so. They do not ask for an analysis of freedom and its laxity. They ask for it to be trumpeted and demanded. Because, in response to such charges – especially from the powerful – what recourse do the vulnerable have aside from an appeal to liberty, to the freedom ‘we all believe in and love’? Not many, and fewer still that don’t undermine them further.

And such appeals cannot be made if their right to exist is judged on their content, on their use ‘to society’. Because, if they were, they would be thrown out; dismissed. It is exactly anything contra society that requires what Charlie has. Freedom of speech judged on content is freedom within societal whim. It is the permission to say what you like within your prison. It is not freedom at all. And it is this (un)freedom that our society affords.

But this hypocrisy is not hidden. And I think that events like these should be used to uncover it. In France, one would hope, that the liberty-carnival engendered by Charlie’s friends – among whom I number – will cause (greater) anger next time their government bans a pro-Palestinian march. Here, I hope it may makes people less clambering in their desire to ban the burning of poppies, a satire if ever there was.

So if I am Charlie, I am limping. But my legs were injured before the 7th of January. For I am Charlie, not in spite of the every day constrictions of freedom of expression current in ‘civilisation’, but because of them. I am Charlie because of this hypocrisy. I am Charlie for the oppressed, so that they may at least (one day) speak. I am Charlie because of an argument that still continues, for freedoms that have not yet been won for all.

I am Charlie, too, for HYSTERIA and for all radical publications. For, without speech (however shakily enshrined) how could we continue our mission to engage in ‘fluid critical dialogues that shake the guise of normalcy, which disable structures of oppression operating and thriving.’ We could not.


* By this I do not refer simply to some homogenized block of Muslims, but the Catholics, politicians, women, fascists, people of colour, homophobes, homosexuals and misogynists who also offended.

Emma SapersteinComment