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24 hours with Charlie Hebdo

The sudden uncoolness of #JeSuisCharlie


When I went to bed last night, I knew where I stood on the shooting in Paris that killed 12 people at the office of Charlie Hebdo. It was horrific and scary. There was no doubt that this was an attack on free speech and we should all stand in support of the dead cartoonists. I RT’d a couple of tweets I thought summed up the point, like @WGladstone: ‘My 6 yr old asked me if “satire” is like a “flat tire.” I told him no. People know how to handle a flat tire.’ I kept away from #JeSuisCharlie because it felt a bit …glib. I read up on the magazine’s history with Prophet Mohammed and I didn’t feel like sharing those cartoons, either. Not because they offended me, but because I didn’t find them that funny. And if you are one of the 100+ people that follow me on Twitter, you know I only share funny shit. Or kittens.

Then this morning, I read this: ‘Btw, it’s entirely possible to say cartoons were racist, offensive, baited Muslims AND ppl shouldn’t be murdered for exercising free speech.’

This tweet by journalist @NaheedMustafa shook me a little because of how widely shared the sentiment seems to be. It came close on the heels of this tweet by Kiran Bedi: ‘France Terror-Shoot-Out sends a message: why deliberately provoke or poke? Be respectful and civil. Don’t hurt people’s sensitivities!’

While Mustafa condemns the cartoons and the shooting, Bedi condemns only the cartoons. Bedi was roundly castigated for her insensitive tweet, but today, many are echoing Mustafa’s sentiment. Today, there is a victim-blaming tinge to my timeline. As always on social media, balance is being attempted after yesterday’s orgy of sentiment. And as always on social media, we are now wrong in a whole new way.

Now all those sick of the eulogies written for these cartoonists want you to know the following things about the people who died: they were white, they published some racist, homophobic, xenophobic cartoons in the past (I can’t read French so I’ll take their word for it), they made bad cartoons that were not worthy of the label of satire.

Freedom of speech means we have the freedom to criticise those cartoons too. But to do it while we are condemning the murder of the cartoonists is hideous. For perspective, let’s consider a context in which we all agree that victim-blaming is abominable: rape. Take the recent Uber rape case. In that context, a tweet like Mustafa’s might read like this:

‘Btw, it’s entirely possible to say women should not fall asleep in cabs while travelling alone AND that they should not be raped as a result of this.’

No, you know what? You can’t say both without sounding like you think she asked for it. Those dead cartoonists asked for it.

Would you, reading this, would you put your life on the line for a job? Forget a job, would you risk your life just to say something? Not even something lofty and noble that will live on forever in people’s hearts, but just some crude little joke you’re making expressly for the purpose of flying up someone’s nose? Would you die for it? These guys did. And they had to have suspected they might. Charlie Hebdo’s office has been attacked before, and even at the time of shooting the editor had police protection. They were risking their lives to continue to irritate people. I find their courage admirable. And I get now that it is this courage that people salute when they #JeSuisCharlie.

Or maybe they’re not. Maybe some of them are only #JeSuisCharlie to jump on whatever band-wagon happened to be driving by. They are the reason I hesitated to use that hashtag. They made it uncool with their noisy enthusiasm. What do they even know about Charlie Hebdo? Do they know how offensive their cartoons were? So this morning, their education began from the side that Mustafa represents. Twenty-four hours later, we are so over our outrage. We want another point of view just so we can feel like we’re being balanced about all this. Social media is fueled by the search for balance. Or a new spin. 

So today we’ve established this: 12 people were shot dead, their cartoons were not very good. Our first reaction, yesterday, was to the actual tragedy. Now we’re reacting to the first reactions. Tomorrow we will react to the second reactions. And so on till everyone’s fed up of talking about this. People who declared #JeSuisCharlie will be made to feel sheepish for that moment of genuine feeling. That idiotic moment when you type something into your phone to express simple solidarity. Or to declare that this is a terrible thing that happened, I feel for those who lost their lives. I feel for their families. We did that with Peshawar and, regardless of how deeply each one of us meant it, we all felt a little less alone in our helplessness when we logged on.

Twenty-four hours later, I don’t think that hashtag is glib anymore. It stands for the people we were when we first heard. It’s not cool anymore but are you still with Charlie? I am.

– Deepa Menon