Our Times 3

Charlie Hebdo murders show some speakers are freer than others


Image from the Office of War Information

The shocking murder of nine journalists and three others in a brazen, coordinated attack in the offices of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo demands sympathy for the victims’ families and has provided a chilling reminder to many writers, editors and satirists who challenge orthodoxy of the potential costs of their willingness to provoke. That shouldn’t, and won’t, be forgotten.

We have already heard political leaders from across the globe represent these attacks as attacks on democratic values. Stephen Harper called the attacks “barbaric” and vowed that “Canada and its allies will not be intimidated.” We would “stand firmly together against terrorists who would threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value.”

Most of all, these attacks are being read as an attack on freedom of expression. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair declared that he and his party would continue to “show solidarity with journalists and all those who defend freedom of speech around the world.” For many, this solidarity included republishing Charlie’s most notorious covers on their social media pages or on the covers of their newspapers.

That was a particularly strange move, because the only controversial cartoons republished have been ones depicting Muslims in unflattering, often racist, lights. This is perhaps understandable given the attacks appear to have been carried out by self-described al-Qaeda members, but it does suggest that these latest advocates for free speech advocates are not defending the right to offend per se, but the right to offend Muslims.

Free speech does not exist. It never has. Free speech as we usually understand it has never meant the unfettered ability of all people, regardless of sociopolitical status, to speak their mind. When John Milton (literally the author of Iconoclast) declared in Areopagitica in 1644 that it were “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature…but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself,” in the same breath he defends the duty of the Church to censor books before they get published. That is, it’s not that censorship is bad, it’s just that the wrong kind of censorship is.

Currently, in Tasmania, the state government is about to pass a law that will allow corporations to sue individual protesters for defamation. In Canada, Postmedia owns all but a handful of mainstream newspapers in the country, our public broadcaster has been crippled by underfunding, and dissident non-profit organizations have been targeted for onerous audits by Canada’s Revenue Agency. Our Prime Minister refuses to open an inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis, he has gagged scientists whose research undermines his worldview and his so-called Fair Elections Act disenfranchises thousands of Canadians nationwide. Meanwhile, the voices of workers, refugees, First Nations, young people and other oppressed groups are systematically marginalized, denigrated and ignored.

So, please forgive me if I remain skeptical that the uplifting rallying behind the right to publish cartoons that depict Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens is about free speech.

What the response to the appalling murders at Charlie should show us is not that free speech more or less exists and that these kind of isolated incidents only serve to remind us that we need to defend it; but that certain kinds of provocative speech acts are defended while others are not – or, more worrisome, not uttered or given public forum in the first place. Certain speakers who pay the price for their utterances are mourned while others are rendered invisible before they have the opportunity to speak at all.

Charlie’s provocation and race baiting were given the opportunity to provoke precisely because they fed into existing discourses of power that privilege the West’s view of the war on terror: divorced from petro-economics, histories of colonialism and Western acts of obscene military violence on civilian populations. This is not to say that Charlie didn’t have the “right” to make offensive, even dangerous cartoons – but there are specific reasons why these cartoons were permitted the public space they were given.

As Juan Cole has amply demonstrated, these attacks likely had a strategic purpose that did not take free speech into account. Of course, the victims were targeted because they challenged dangerous people and the cost they bore must be minimized by a society that values the free exchange of ideas. But this attack was not trying to silence the editorialists at Charlie. The attack exploits the decision made by the paper to position itself within Islamophobic narratives that serve a larger imperialist purpose – just as it exploits the West’s belief that “Western values” are superior to all others and that lesser civilizations bitterly envy us for them.

It is an extremely simplistic – and indeed, racist, – move to assume that the men who executed this clinical, ruthless attack were merely defending their god or attacking democracy. The motivations and consequences of these murders will take months, probably years to become clear – but we can be certain that its providence cannot be boiled down to “they hate us for our freedoms.”

The editorial staff of Charlie were not murdered because they were offensive, but their offensiveness was leveraged into a strategic move as part of a geopolitical narrative in which we all participate. They are banking, it would seem, that we believe free speech is a thing that currently exists, when it only exists in our imaginations. And so far, our elected leaders have embraced this decoy with both arms.

This article originally appeared on


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