It’s been five years since the massacre at the French comic publication. At Tablet, Jacob Seigel looks back and ponders whether that was the turning point, when speech and thought gave way to feelings and sophistry.
The tragedy produced a memorable slogan—je suis Charlie Hebdo—and brought world leaders together to march and pose for photographs, but even five years later its full import may not be understood. The Hebdo attack was a pivotal historical moment, not because of the event itself—practically a jihadi cliche in which a symbolic offense provoked an absurd overreaction directed at defenseless targets.
What was unique and consequential was the response from the cultural and ethical minders of the Western elite. In America, the aftermath of the Hebdo killings galvanized a set of opposing ideas about the nature of violence and victimhood, and the value of free expression. In the years since, Hebdo’s defenders who took up the cause of free speech have clearly been losing ground.
There are a few things worthy of note before going further. This happened before Trump was president, so it wasn’t a reaction to the many claims of awfulness surrounding his populist supporters or his normalization of vulgarity and lies. This happened at the tail end of societal memory of 9/11, when people had grown tired, bored perhaps, with the war against terrorism, and shifted from blaming Muslim extremists to feeling badly for Muslim refugees.
Finally, this happened as hurt feelings on the interwebs coalesced into a cult of victimhood that conflated physical injury with existential offense. Sticks and stones were at first the equivalent of mean words, and then became less traumatic, we were told.
Almost immediately after the ambush on Hebdo, a political reaction to the attack coalesced in the American and Western press around the idea that the cartoonists really had gone too far with their drawings. While, of course, condemning the dreadful murders, certain sensitive observers, including New Yorker writers, countless online scribblers, noted poets, prestigious professors, PEN award winners, and other highly cultured and impeccably credentialed figures, hastened to point out that, yes, yes, it was a very nasty thing, the shooting down in cold blood of bawdy comic strip artists, but the cartoonists were, nevertheless, rightfully understood, enacting their own form of violence in their drawings. This interpretation of the unfortunate event was expressed clearly, though never quite so honestly, through an echo chamber of columns, essays, tweets and public statements that blurred or erased the difference between speech and violence.
There is a logical fallacy called “appeal to authority,” and it’s dangerous because it’s both fallacious and persuasive. Publications of legacy note like the New Yorker said so. Organizations like PEN (and, dare I say it, the ACLU), which had historically stood as bulwarks of civil rights, and therefore were accepted as the conclusive voice of right and wrong, good and evil, suddenly got all squishy about free speech in the face of the murder. It’s not that they were overtly in favor of murder, but they had it coming. They went too far.
They went too far.
Free speech, once almost universally seen as indispensable in free societies, is now commonly derided as a tool used by the privileged to subjugate already marginalized groups. Of course there were earlier precedents like the Salman Rushdie affair, but the same language used to condemn Hebdo now shows up in almost every banal new episode of the culture war. What had previously been somewhat radical or obscure interpretations of speech and violence were rapidly popularized over social media through the vehicle of the Hebdo controversy and adopted by people wishing to signal their assent to a broader set of political principles within a social grouping on the left.
Not only did the distinction between physical and emotional “pain” become a subject of dispute, but the principle of free speech came under attack as a weapon of the privileged to silence the marginalized. If a “marginalized” voice, whether Muslim or female, transgender or unidexter, shouted something provocative into the void, the responses became the focal point of harm, as they “silenced” the marginalized voices by saying mean things to and about them and hurting their feelings.
Sometimes they involved threats of harm and horrible ill wishes. Sometimes it was just plain old nasty. Sometimes it was substantive and thoughtful. No matter. If it wasn’t supportive and didn’t recognize their placement on the hierarchy of victims, it was bad speech to respond to the speech of the marginalized.
But weren’t a bunch of French alt-comic writers margainlized? They weren’t privileged. They weren’t powerful. They were helpless in the face of two armed Muslims whose feelings were hurt by their depiction of their prophet and so murdered them.
Right along there along with the reversal of murderer and murdered, oppressor and oppressed, came the denial of victimhood to Jews who had been getting attacked in growing numbers throughout France in the years leading up to the Hebdo murders but were seen by influential segments of the European and American left as too powerful to really be victims, especially in comparison to their Muslim countrymen.
Two days after the Hebdo massacre, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly swore his allegiance to ISIS, entered the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews.
Were the four Jews in the kosher supermarket asking for it too? While there was condemnation for the conduct, it came with progressive understanding of the marginalized Muslim murderer’s pain. The murderer was the oppressed. It was wrong to kill, but it was understandable because of his identity. He was a victim. The anonymous Jews killed were unfortunate collateral consequences, but they weren’t on the current list of identities for whom anyone felt badly.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre didn’t cause any of this to happen, but it revealed what was happening below the surface. Identity politics had its chosen victims, as reason was replaced by rationalization, and by vilifying speech, no “decent” and “moral” person could call bullshit about murders because “they went too far.”