Both the unifying power of social media and its tendency to oversimplify were on full display as word spread of the horrendous murders in Paris at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The ghastly, workmanlike slaughter of cartoonists, editors and other staff, along with two police officers, shocked people all over the world not just because of its brutality but also because of its target. We’re not accustomed, in the United States anyway, to murderous attacks over the exercise of free speech.
Twitter feeds lit up with anguish and defiance — and solidarity, in the form of a now iconic graphic image of the phrase "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie"). Newsrooms around Europe assembled their staffs for mass photos of everybody holding signs with the phrase. Within hours of the attack, the hashtag JesuisCharlie was everywhere, a powerful mass reply across the globe that would not have been possibly before Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other trending media.
For those who claimed they were Charlie, just what did Charlie mean? The editorial staff were known for the crudity of their barbs, which were aimed at a wide range of religions, politicians and other objects of reverence in French culture and life.
Care to retweet a cartoon of a priest performing a sex act? Of the prophet Muhammad naked or the Pope out with a girlfriend? Look to back issues of Charlie Hebdo.
Obviously, the content of Charlie Hebdo was not what was being upheld but rather a principle. We who live in free societies must be determined that free speech is not stifled by terrorism. This was especially driven home by the cascade of other terror attacks in France that followed the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
But that doesn’t mean that offensive uses of free speech should go without notice, with a shrug that it’s all just playful blasphemy.
If we put Charlie Hebdo on a pedestal out of grief for the deaths of its artists and editors, and for others who subsequently died, we risk anointing it with a saintliness the paper itself seemed to mock. That’s a view that needs to be heard and understood — especially on these shores, where few understand the paper’s history and place in French society.
Arthur Goldhammer of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University elucidated this nuance in a piece on Aljazeera America’s website.
Goldhammer explained that Charlie Hebdo exudes a deeply French irreverence that isn’t as familiar to U.S. readers. Especially in recent years, the paper traded in a form of satire that wasn’t necessarily attached to a particular political view or perspective of a particular social class.
"Reproducing the imagery created by the murdered artists tends to sacralize them as embodiments of some abstract ideal of free speech. But many of the publications that today honor the dead as martyrs would yesterday have rejected their work as tasteless and obscene, as indeed it often was. The whole point of Charlie’s satire was to be tasteless and obscene, to respect no proprieties, to make its point by being untameable and incorrigible and therefore unpublishable anywhere else," Goldhammer wrote.
We who grieve for the staff of Charlie Hebdo must retain the right — the duty, if we’re honest — also to judge the newspaper on its merits. Did it cross the line of decency in its depictions not just of Islam and Mohammad but also of Muslims? Did it aim to offend this sizable French minority, one that has had more than its share of discrimination to deal with for decades?
It’s unclear what will become of the relations between France’s majority and its Muslim minority. The country clearly has a serious problem with homegrown Muslim terrorists. A hopeful sign is a slogan suggested by Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Muslim columnist for a Belgian newspaper, in a tweet: "I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so."
In free societies, most Muslim citizens value civic freedoms as much as most others do. And like Ahmed Merabet, the policemen Jahjah referred to in his tweet, sometimes they, too, die defending those freedoms.
The pen is mightier than the sword. We who wield it must take care — not out of fear of those who choose the sword but out of consideration for those we might unjustly wound.