The early backlash to the “je suis Charlie” phrase began hardly a day after the eight Charlie Hebdo editors and illustrators (plus four additional people) were murdered by terrorists in Paris on January 7. Several contrarians painted it as a hypocritical, beer-muscled line mostly being parroted by people who would never display the reckless courage of the Charlie Hebdo staff, don’t have a clue about the newspaper’s editorial point of view and likely wouldn’t be nearly as broken up about the identical slaughter of people who, say, were gunned down for drawing caricatures of Jews or blacks. Or maybe Americans.
Of course, “je suis Charlie” is just the latest iteration of the “I am” rallying meme that starts going around after a bloody event. For example, “I am Trayvon Martin,” “I am a Jew,” “I’m Michael Brown,” etc. By now, some people have closets with nasty identity disorders. I get that the broadly intended meaning of this Swiss Army slogan is “I’m united with the persecuted party” or “when you hurt them, you hurt me.” But I’m pretty tired of hearing it from people who are in no way similar to the entity they are supposedly boldly supporting.
Like any white person who said “I am Trayvon.” And any non-Jew who said “I am a Jew.” Without need, both of these utterances lent a small, ridiculous element to a well-intended gesture of support. Namely, the microscopic implication that your statement of affiliation has somehow imbued you with a lifetime of looking out of someone else’s skull and the burden of realities they’ll still be dealing with after you move on. A simple “I stand with you” would avoid transmitting that, but I suppose it lacks meme-able audacity.
Yes, I realize I’m taking this all too literally and criticizing a fairly harmless sentiment of solidarity that carries little more weight than a Facebook like for a lot of people. But it’s that very ease of deployment—often by swarms of lightly invested onlookers—that gives me chafe. Mainly because I sense that the “I am” catchphrase is baldly attempting to borrow gravitas from the no-bullshit, all-in, one-per-lifetime Spartacus statement.
The Spartacus statement is an unflinching, irrevocable promise to literally swap places or, at minimum, share a grisly fate with a comrade straight through to the ugly, bitter end. (Which originally meant joining Kirk Douglas as crucified bird food along the Appian Way. This never happened to the real Spartacus, but that’s beside the point.)
Obviously, you don’t just throw Spartacus statements around. In fact, you only get to say “I’m Spartacus” (whoever or whatever your Spartacus may be) when you are in clear and present danger of getting killed for saying it. If you don’t expect the consequence to be fatal, you’re making the infinitely weaker “if he goes, I go” statement, which might still be kind of scary but is definitely not a Spartacus statement.
“Je suis Charlie” is the most annoying phony Spartacus statement to date, and not just due to its popularity. Sure, one unfortunate problem is that it’s French, and most phrases are insufferable in French. But the bigger issue is its note of boastful presumption which insinuates that you’re a brave, risk-taking motherfucker who willingly invites serious death threats by continually pushing the boundaries of free speech and pissing off fanatical lunatics who mean business—and you keep right on pulling those stunts after they firebomb your office. Hell, you don’t even stop after eight of your buddies are shot dead (as evidenced by the January 14, 2015 Charlie Hebdo cover depicting Muhammad, shown below).
You are probably not that. Just playing the odds here.
I am, unequivocally, not that. That’s why I won’t be saying “je suis Charlie” unless I find myself in France with a Hitler mustache and bamboo cane.
Each murdered person on the Charlie Hebdo staff knew they had long been baiting enemies who had the explicit intent and ample capability to kill them. In Paris on January 7, they paid hard for their choice of expression, for literally being Charlie. You cannot insinuate that you are included in that intimate equation, in any way, unless you buy in for a full share. And that requires putting your life up as immediate collateral. Euphemisms that half-heartedly hint at this intention might foster good feelings, but frankly, given the stakes we’re talking about, they deserve eye rolls.
In this entire horrible affair, the closest I’ll get to making a Spartacus statement— meaning “je suis Charlie”—is slapping a couple of the newspaper’s Muhammad covers (including this one) on my blog, donating money to the newspaper, buying the new issue when it’s available in the U.S., and other small acts of faux valor. Combined, they lamely say, “I support the civilized right to offend and blaspheme—even in the most gratuitously vulgar (yet legal) ways if that’s your thing—without getting jailed or killed for it. So fuck you, radical Muslim extremists or any other party who perchance discovers this and doesn’t like it.”
That’s not especially brave. Nor is it idealistically balanced. Would I do any of this if Charlie Hebdo was a white supremacist publication that frequently depicted Jesus Christ as a tranny or an SS officer? Or Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan engaged in particularly wrenching acts of pedophilia? Or me as I currently appear?
Maybe not, but I’d like to think so. I won’t pretend that my personal societal rearing and limits of enlightenment, as well as the current zeitgeist (Christian extremists are not beheading people in YouTube videos during this particular period) aren’t strongly manipulating my sympathies. They are, and that will never stop, although continued evolution would be welcome. Allowing such manipulation is wrong in matters of law and often nakedly hypocritical in civic discussion, but for the individual, there can be frightfully little impetus (or, typically, want) to defy it, especially if it feels roughly justifiable to whatever tangled sliver of neurons took a moment to mull it over. I know my lens is skewed; anyone who thinks they’re agnostically clear-eyed is a fool. I just hope my biases do less harm than any opposing ones they counter.
It’s important to remember that the twelve murders render the severity of the material that provoked the terrorist’s anger inconsequential. The zealots didn’t just stage a hostile demonstration and burn effigies to show their rage over the blasphemous cartoons; they murdered twelve people in cold blood. You can’t equivocate that by saying, “of course, the Charlie Hebdo drawings crossed the line of decency so flagrantly, one must understand how disrespected and abused they made Muslims feel.” The killings make such strained attempts at moral parsing completely moot.
Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post noted that Charlie Hebdo has run many illustrations depicting minorities and historically targeted groups in stereotypically offensive ways no American politician would touch; think big-nosed Jews and simian-faced blacks. However, fanatical Jewish or black militants have never stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices and slaughtered a dozen people. Islamic crazies did. This hurts the exercise of arguing hypothetical equivalencies.
A related quandary: Would I have an illo of a wizened, fanged Jew or a wide-grinned minstrel lackey on this page if either was the offending cartoon that sent killers to a satirical newspaper office? I doubt it, but it’s not as fair of a question as the many well-meaning smart-asses who are asking it believe. That’s because mocking racial caricatures and depictions of sexual acts, child abuse, genocide and other merry sundries being mentioned as proxies for a bug-eyed Muhammad in millions of discussions across the planet right now are, simply, not roundabout substitutes for a cartoon prophet. These things elicit varying degrees of offense and discomfort across many religions, cultures and peoples.
For example, a rendering of bestiality will tighten work-a-day sphincters in most corners of the globe, regardless of whether Vladimir Putin or Al Sharpton are included as participants. The horrified revulsion over the idea of depicting some historical figure in any form whatsoever, however, doesn’t have nearly the same universality. There’s nothing innately taboo about it. If you’re not Muslim, it can seem like a fairly arbitrary and needless source of aversion, much less murderous vengeance.
Restated, if Charlie Hebdo was a raunchy-ass porn mag, I probably wouldn’t use a photo of a gaped vagina as my Facebook profile after terrorists shot the whole staff dead. But I would do something.
If my propagating the Charlie Hebdo covers gets me offed by a radical nut with far too much time on his hands, I’ll have made a painful (to me) miscalculation of degree but not, I think, category. I didn’t go into journalism because I wanted to work in a plumbing supply store. That’s one reason I’m disgusted with the New York Times for epically failing to put the new Charlie Hebdo cover on their website or print edition. At the ugly bitter end, I will probably be desperately renouncing the entire concept of free speech while shitting my drawers and begging for my life. But right before the bitter end, I hope I can muster enough Frenchy fuck-you-itude to be at least a little British about it. The American in me can’t really fathom any of this medieval bullshit.