Did It Start With Charlie Hebdo?

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.”

12 thoughts on “Did It Start With Charlie Hebdo?

  1. B. McLeod

    Cleary the Hebdo attack was not the beginning of anything. Even at the time, it struck me that it was simply a difference as to the suppressive mechanism. The Hebdo attackers used guns to advance their censorship attempt, where other would-be word and thought police were using other mechanisms.

      1. Tamar

        I agree with B McLeod on the Hebdo attacks were not the beginning. This has been unfortunately ongoing since post Holocaust.

        1. Fubar

          I also agree with B. McLeod that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were not the beginning. Censorious attacks on free speech were ongoing long before the Holocaust, using laws, guns, clubs and any other weapons available.

          What changes is who the brain police are at any particular time or place.

  2. Rengit

    I doubt Charlie Hebdo was “the beginning” of anything, but it did mark a fork in the road or a slip on the slope due to the confluence of various migration crises in both the United States in Europe in 2014 (since the Anglophone press pays attention to both continents). In the US, there was the huge surge of unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, midway through 2014, which may have played a part in the Republicans gaining control of the Senate in the November elections. Then, the Syrian and Libyan refugee/migrant surge, most of them Muslim, into Europe started heavily picking up towards the end of 2014, with no signs of abating into 2015. The general attitude from prestigious news institutions, and less prominent but still respected left or left-leaning organizations, was that these people needed to be not only be admitted, but accommodated for, that this would be the new norm, and that doing so would have no downsides. And beyond the migration issues, there was further in the broader ecosystem calls from security services and other expert class-types in the West to regulate social media/the internet in response to ISIS and the (unfortunately heavily politicized in the US due to political opportunism on both sides of the aisle) role of a YouTube video offensive to Muslims in relation to the Benghazi embassy attacks.

    If I remember correctly, the perpetrators weren’t immigrants themselves, but were the sons of immigrants from North Africa, which suggested that assimilation/integration was not something that could be taken for granted. This was difficult for the media companies, which had presented the earlier migrant surges (and the increasing surge into Europe that was obviously coming throughout 2015) as presenting no downsides, to stomach. I don’t know what percentage of outlets like NPR, Slate, the New Yorker, and even PEN adopted the “It’s horrible what happened to Charlie Hebdo, but did they really have to offend Muslims?” as a cynical exercise in spin and reputational damage control, and what percentage experienced a deeply troubling cognitive dissonance and began to genuinely lower the value of free speech against the value of mass migration, multiculturalism, and the feelings of minority groups. There was likely a much smaller percentage that also genuinely feared for their safety if they did the types of thing CH did.

    However, at any rate, it was troubling to see these kinds of outlets mostly refuse to display both earlier CH covers that had enraged the attackers and the portrayal of Muhammad that CH ran in the aftermath of the attack, with some even banning commenters who used the image in their avatar to mock the apparent cowardice of the outlets, giving BS excuses about how there was little journalistic value in republishing the images. This did genuinely feel like a departure from past practice, and, as a concrete matter, manifested itself in increasing moderation and even outright rejection of comment systems by media sites.

    1. B. McLeod

      I don’t think the political correctness crowd are basing any of their bullshit on actual migration patterns. It’s all about what could be offensive to some hypothetical, marginalized person in the abstract. If a cartoon might be expected to offend an epileptic hunter-gatherer from Botswana, it’s bad, bad, bad. It doesn’t matter whether any actual epileptic hunter-gatherer from Botswana ever sees it, or is even likely to see it. It doesn’t even matter if an epileptic hunter-gatherer from Botswana sees it and laughs, out of ignorance that he or she should be offended by it.

  3. Aaron G.

    I’ve always considered the Charlie Hebdo attacks a jumping off point for moderate free speech crusaders. A point where you’re actually challenged on your “I will defend to the death your right to say it” slogan you heard one time on All In The Family. How much can you defend freedom for all when the censors carry rifles and rockets? Over all it tested people’s belief in Free Speech in a more aggressive way than it’s been tested in a long time.

  4. B. McLeod

    Not long after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was working on a Peeps Diorama in which a burqua-clad ABA Moderator sought to school the wayward cartoonists on what their cover should have looked like (Outline of a white silhouette in place of the Mohammed image). Somehow, that one never went anywhere, but I noticed tonight that I still have the lyrics (which match to a popular 19th Century tune of similar name).

    That’s What’s the Matter

    French cartoonists acting out,
    Why all this chatter,
    What is all the noise about,
    What, what’s the matter?
    Publish only what you should,
    Things we all agree are good,
    How is that misunderstood,
    What, what’s the matter?
    What, what’s the matter, now,
    What, what’s the matter?
    There’s no need to have a cow,
    What, what’s the matter?

    Terrorists with gun and bomb,
    Trying to splatter,
    All who might offend Islam,
    That’s what’s the matter,
    Shooting at cartoonists now,
    As our laws do not allow,
    “Bang” and “boom” and “pow,pow,pow,”
    That’s what’s the matter.
    That’s what’s the matter, now,
    That’s what’s the matter.
    To such threats we musn’t bow,
    That’s, what’s the matter.

    If you’ll only moderate,
    Drawings you scatter,
    Everyone will think you’re great,
    What, what’s the matter?
    Print as everybody’s friend,
    Leave out things that might offend,
    Only pleasantries extend,
    What, what’s the matter?
    What, what’s the matter, now,
    What, what’s the matter?
    Where the cause for furrowed brow,
    What, what’s the matter?

    Though we thank you for the thought,
    (Mad as a hatter),
    We don’t publish silly rot,
    That’s what’s the matter,
    Sometimes in the things we say,
    We may be a bit risque,
    Clearly not the ABA,
    What, what’s the matter?
    What, what’s the matter, now,
    What, what’s the matter?
    As for writing we know how,
    That’s what’s the matter!

  5. Cooper Garrett

    The Hebdo affair revealed the true cowardly nature of western elites and media. Instead of defending the most basic aspect of our civilization, freedom of thought and expression, they knelt in the shadow of Darius and Xerxes and whispered “Welcome, my Lord… Welcome.”

Comments are closed.