I condemn the attacks but I am not Charlie, I cannot draw it and I mean it seriously

Jan 17, 2015 by

A value is not just a word 

“Je suis Charlie”. I am Charlie, you are Charlie, we are Charlie. A dangerous conjugation practised on the black banners on the streets of Paris, Toulouse, Dresden and other places last weekend. The existential “I am” is these days used to express the feeling of solidarity with the victims of a horrific murder committed on twelve journalists of a satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo”. But “I am” does not finish with solidarity if you take the verb for what it means – the identification with what this newspaper and its journalists stood for. And solidarity should not finish with the twelve victims if you take this value just as seriously as the recently hyped “freedom of speech”.

I did not know “Charlie Hebdo” before Tuesday and I spent a few days going through various editions. It quickly became clear to me that most cartoons have little to do with satire as I know it from literature courses and a lot with hate speech and defamation that we analysed in law and political science courses.  Calling those cartoons a symbol of “freedom of speech” only because of the tragic death of their authors does not do justice to them, their mission nor does it contribute anything to a serious social discussion about values.

The value of values does not lie in their proclamation, but in their application for the common good. They need to be lived in a certain socio-historical context in order to go beyond mere rhetoric of political speeches and to carry any substantial meaning, at all. Two days ago, Francois Hollande finished one of his speeches with a triumphant “our freedom is non-negotiable”. Full stop. Applause. Phrases like that have in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks been evaluated as a sign of a “firm stance” and of strength of our European and Americal liberal value-orientated culture. In fact, they point to a moment of weakness that we already, a week after the attacks in Paris, start to regret.

 Freedom by itself can degenerate into vulgarity

If you care about the truthfulness of what say rather than just the sound of your words and if you have any experience of social contact at all, you do not proclaim freedom in isolation from other values, just as deeply European. Freedom and responsibility, freedom and solidarity, freedom and peace – the “and” is crucial as it introduces dimension of reality, it puts borders on the otherwise borderless and seducing term of freedom. Surely, it is politically comfortable to move in a “black and white” world, in a world in which you can say that freedom of speech is “absolute” and be on the “right” side. It is much more difficult to ask yourself what the effects of your (free) moves will have on other people, in one word, to differentiate. To think. Freedom is a term to grow up to, not to shout out of or use as cover for ridicule and disrespect.

It is easy to fall in the  trap of the simplicity of one-dimensional concepts and use argument such as “I am free I can do anything I want” or, in a milder form, “I am free so I can do anything the law does not prohibit”. In fact, this is not an argument but a repetition of undifferentiated phrases that we have failed to put against the test of experience. Sentences that we say for the argument’s sake not for the sake of coming an inch closed to the truth. Apart from liberty, we also have concepts such as “legitimacy”, used mostly in the academic discourse, to partly cover for these areas of in-between. The debate on freedom by itself ignores this social reality and feeds into simplistic oppositions sparking conflicts. Peace is also a value, not just public attention, I wish to tell politicians who march side by side in Paris, sponsor Charlie Hebdo further editions and do not seem to think further than a week ahead.

What I see in the media and in the political world in the last days is that a very narrow understanding of freedom, represented by a certain French niche group, heirs to Voltaire and the encyclopedists, is being adopted by the majorities in other European countries. It spreads and this is dangerous. It may have its place and function as a peculiar niche in France, but it does no good as a main current of the public discourse. The cartoons in “Charlie Hebdo”  for the most part spread offensive and racist messages in an aesthetics that is base and tasteless rather than funny. Such cartoons do not lead to thinking, as some argue in their defense. Such satire does not open our eyes nor does it broaden our horizons, nor does it contribute to rationality and peace. We throughtlessly revel in a glorification of images that in many other contexts would be condemned as inappropriate, insulting and unacceptable. We have lost all sense, especially sense of proportion.

 We are funny and vain

Glorification of humour, satire or irony, which I normally subscribe to as long as it has something to offer beyond a laugh of only one of the parties, is part of our liberal-rational mentality. We tend to think of laughter as a disarming and a distancing tool. When you can laugh, also about yourself, you take on a healthy distance. This distance to matters serious and light is also part of our Western secular culture. We perceive it as an achievement. The problem is that with this intellectual capacity to distance  and a pinch of vanity that comes with the awareness of it too, we have forgotten to strengthen our emotional and cultural intelligence. And we have lost taste on the way, as well.

Of course, we can laugh at anything and draw anything we want. But there are other expressions of liberty that I can think of as more constructive: freedom to help the immigrants to learn your language, freedom to think in differentiated terms, freedom to close the paper with Charlie Hebdo images and still mourn the tragic death of those journalists and condemn the perpetrators.

And a freedom to say: I condemn the perpetrators and I am not Charlie. I cannot draw it but I can write it. And I mean it seriously.

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