Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie.

charlie-hebdoI am a writer. It sounds simple (and I’m sure you knew that about me anyway), but a lot falls out from that. One of the important things about writers is that by and large, they value freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means that I have the right to think out, write down and publish the stories I’ve already created in my mind. Without being free to write what we wish, we writers can’t exercise our creativity.

There’s no requirement for anyone to like what I write (although of course, I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a lucrative publishing contract). You’re not obligated to read any of my work. If you do read it, there’s no law saying you must think it’s any good at all. That’s your right. No-one is compelled to read any of my blog posts, let alone agree with the points I make. That’s your right too. That’s the other half of freedom of expression. You are free to publicly disagree with me, ignore everything I write, and/or publish really negative reviews of my fiction.

You probably knew this too, but I also do academic writing. In that capacity, freedom of expression means that I may choose (within the limits of ethical treatment of humans and animals) any research topic of interest to me, formulate a research question, conduct a study and write a paper based on it. Academic freedom means that an academician’s choice of research topic is not limited by a government, a university or an institution. There are certainly codes of conduct that must be followed to ensure the safety and privacy of people who participate in studies, but beyond that, academicians are free to come to whatever conclusions their research suggests.

Academic freedom also means that other researchers are equally free to disagree with conclusions, refute findings, propose alternative explanations, or completely ignore a given paper. That’s a researcher’s right, too.

Those two sides of freedom of expression are the foundation of the debates that have moved us forward as humans. That’s how we’ve developed cures, launched successful businesses, forged governments and created and harnessed new technologies. It’s also how we’ve found ways to express ourselves creatively and look at the human condition through art, music, writing, drama and film. Ideas are presented, other ideas arise from that, and through the debate and learning that follow, we get to a better understanding of ourselves and our world.

Sometimes, freedom of expression means that we dislike – even find offensive – a given book, political idea, blog post, or film. When that happens (I’ve certainly felt that way, anyway), we can exercise our own freedom. We can stop reading a given book or write a very negative review. We can refuse to read the work of a given author. We can block blog comments written by those who make personally insulting remarks or use slurs we don’t like. We can choose not to vote for a politician whose ideas we disagree with, or launch or participate in a protest against a law. Don’t like adult films? You can walk right by such cinemas or choose not to go to such websites. Dislike a certain actor or director? You’re free to avoid that person’s films. Have strong religious beliefs? You’re free in many societies to eat or not eat certain foods, avoid alcohol and/or caffeine, worship as you choose (or not worship at all) and so on.

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I prize freedom of expression. I depend on it. That means that I sometimes stop reading a book, or avoid a given film, or disagree with a blog post I’ve read. It also means that I sometimes find myself having to listen and respond respectfully as a colleague or student says something with which I strongly disagree. Those things can be difficult. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being free to express, share and debate ideas is too important to me.

And that’s one reason I am so appalled by the murders at the offices of Paris’ newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The deaths alone are of course awful in themselves. My thoughts and wishes for healing go out to the friends and families of those who died. Please know that millions of people everywhere stand by you at this time. But just as disturbing is what this attack says about freedom of expression.

I’m deliberately not commenting on my personal opinion of Charlie Hebdo’s choice of cartoons. To me, that’s not the point. The point, in my opinion, is that the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo is free to choose what to print or not to print. Yes, newspapers that report on actual events are not free to make up details. Those must be accurate and factual. But in the case of cartoons and editorials, newspapers are free to use satire and other devices to make points. If readers find them offensive, they are free in their turn to write letters, refuse to buy and read copies of a given newspaper, and encourage their friends and relatives to do the same.

Violence – terrorism – is not only horrible and repugnant, it is also not the way to deal with those whose views we may not share. Charlie Hebdo is not going to go away as a result of these murders. And I, for one, support the newspaper’s resolve. As a writer, I value my freedom to write what I wish – and yours to choose to read it or not – far too much to do anything else.

Je suis Charlie.

45 Comments

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45 responses to “Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie.

  1. Many thanks for these genial words. Much needed in times like these.

    Blessings and greetings,
    Salva

  2. Excellent post, Margot. Personally I find the mocking of anyone’s genuinely held religious (or other) beliefs repugnant, and more likely to entrench attitudes than change them, but violence must never be the answer. However, I can’t say that the UK values freedom of expression as much as it once did – we’ve had a whole raft of laws recently that criminalise the expression of views that don’t fall in line with those of the political elite. It’s worrying – especially since the suppression of open debate is one of the things most likely to make people feel that violence is their only route to protest…

    • Thanks for the kind words, FictionFan. I think you put the whole thing beautifully. We may find an attitude or opinion or expression repugnant and even counterproductive as you say. But a violent, terroristic response is not a solution. When freedom of expression is suppressed, the end result may indeed be the very violence we abhor. And even in cases where people don’t resort to violence, suppressing debate means that problems don’t get addressed and solved, developments aren’t made and new ideas don’t push us forward.

  3. Patti Abbott

    Nicely put, Margot. I think these people do not understand freedom of speech, which is not part of the countries they come from or their culture and religion. However, they can protest speech they disapprove of in many ways. The way they chose to protest it is beyond human understanding. How brain-washed they must be. Imagine valuing life so little,

    • Thanks, Patti. I think you make a very well-taken point about the options those people had. They didn’t need to kill. Certainly our thinking is culturally contextual; yet, as you say, they chose a way to react that’s just beyond my comprehension. I wonder about the messages people like that get too…

  4. I hate to reveal my unawareness of news and events, but this is the first place I heard of this. I don’t read newspapers and on the web I usually limit my topics to books or health. I miss a lot. Nevertheless, I appreciate this post and you said it very well, Margot.

  5. So very well put. I may find some cartoons provocative and question just how tasteful they are – not just those of Charlie, but of other publications – but this is about much more than a knee-jerk reaction to something we don’t like. A balanced, sane approach to this.

    • Thanks very much, Marina Sofia. I think you capture the whole thing so well: we may dislike a given cartoon, or question its taste, or even find it offensive. That’s our right. But this is indeed about something much more. To me, anyway, freedom of expression is far too precious to squander, even if one doesn’t like what’s being expressed. Of course it’s not that simple, but violence is not the answer.

  6. Clarissa Draper

    While it’s not nice to make fun at any one or any religion, I don’t think it should be a death sentence. As writers it should make us think, will something we write now or in the future lead to our being attacked? Great post, excellent points.

    • Clarissa – Thank you. You raise a good question too. What would happen to writers if something we wrote left us open to that kind of attack? It’s happened before. I think you’re absolutely right that mocking can be offensive. But if people find something in bad taste, or disagree with something they’ve read, there are many ways to deal with it – ways far more effective than violence. It’s very sobering to think about the consequences if someone could be attacked or killed just for writing something that someone else found disagreeable.

  7. I agree with everything you have said here, Margot. Je suis Charlie indeed.

  8. Very well said Margot.

    I despair that there are people who believe their right not to be offended trumps someone else’s right to live. If I were to act similarly there would be piles of dead bodies all over the place…I am offended daily by things I hear and see…but that’s life. I avoid, I grizlle to my mates. Occasioanlly I join a protest.

    • Thanks, Bernadette. That means a lot. Life is, as you say, full of things that offend us. That’s how it is when you have seven billion people on a planet. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to kill. That’s what gets me, too – the idea that not being offended is worth more than not being dead. It’s just horrible. There are, as you point out, lots better and more productive things to do…

  9. How easily we forget that nothing said or done can offend you, unless you choose to take offence. What we said as kids is still true today – sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you. It’s pretty obvious that you cannot silence the pen with a machine gun – keep writing!

    • Well said, Peter. And thank you: I do intend to keep writing. You’re absolutely right that we are our own agents when it comes to how we respond to something. If we choose to let something someone says consume us, the consequences can be – well, we’ve just seen them. If we choose a different path and don’t allow ourselves to be eaten up by something someone says, we move on, pride and dignity intact. And all without machine guns.

  10. Col

    Great post Margot. An absolutely horrific event the other day.

  11. Very well said, Ms. Kinberg. The more we progress, in the 21st century, the more we seem to regress. The Religious Right is among the most insecure class of people in the world, I think. The irony is that such insensate and violent behaviour serves to put the spotlight on the very thing that the perpetrators are opposing. In this case, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that are now viral on the internet and elsewhere.

    • Thanks, Prashant. I hadn’t thought carefully about it before, but you’re absolutely right about the effect of the violence. Worldwide attention has now been given to the very thing that group wanted to suppress. It is ironic isn’t it? And it shows that that sort of awful violence and murder doesn’t serve the purpose. Not only has it not succeeded in getting rid of Charlie Hebdo (because the magazine isn’t going away) but now, even more people have seen the comics. As you say, it does feel like regression and among many other things, that’s very sad.

  12. Agreed, Margot, you’ve said all that needs to be said Je Suis Charlie!

  13. Excellent post, Margot.
    Freedom of expression is the foundation on which all democracies were built, and that remains a basic, undeniable right. If you don’t like what a writer has to say, don’t read what he writes, or read carefully and engage in debate. But trying to muzzle a writer, or worse, killing them should not be tolerated by any right thinking person.
    As Voltaire is credited as saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Because we all have the right to speak our mind. You, me, everyone.

    • Natasha – I’m glad you mentioned that excellent Voltaire quote. I thought of putting it in the post, but in the end I didn’t. So it’s good that you added it. As you say, freedom of expression is critical. It does underpin democracies, and it’s the way we as humans have moved forward. No-one says you must agree with what someone writes or says. But in that case, you are free to speak up yourself. Or choose not to read a particular author. Or protest a law or an event. Or, or, or… But silencing other voices is, as you point out, intolerable. And it doesn’t work. Those cartoons are, as Prashant points out, still there and in fact have had a wider audience than they otherwise would.

      • Reminds me of the banning of The Satanic Verses. I am sure more people read, or at least attempted to read, the book purely because of the banning.
        There is so much intolerance around, specially when it comes to religion, it both saddens and scares me.

        • It does me, too, Natasha. On the one hand, it’s understandable that people are proud of their religious beliefs and want to hold onto them and so on. But at the expense of others’ lives? That’s frightening.

  14. Well put. This story has completely horrified me.

  15. Margot: Well done. I am thinking about a post on the challenge of free speech and that limits must be addressed by law not violent vigilantes.

    • Thank you, Bill. I would love to read your thoughts on what freedom of speech really means, and how we can respect everyone’s rights without, as you say, violence. I’ll look forward to your post.

  16. Margot, this is not merely a matter of religion or culture but a worldview that doesn’t allow space for divergent views. Very horrifying. 2014 ended badly and 2015 has begun in this manner.

  17. Kathy D.

    I would hope that religious leaders, civil rights and civil liberties groups in France do oppose the National Front’s attacks now on Muslim communities, and oppose repression against immigrants there because of the acts of a few. It would be terrible if a xenophobic campaign escalated in the face of this.
    When attacks have happened here, there were many who opposed the physical attacks on Muslims, Arabs and even South Asian peoples, which occurred around the country, and also opposed the arrests and detentions of many innocent immigrants.
    When the right-wing in my city opposed the building of a mosque, many people got together and stood up to them in unity. This is very important.
    There needs to be solidarity with these communities who are now being
    threatened by the ultra-right in France.

    • Kathy – You are absolutely right. It is indeed important to ensure that standing together for freedom of expression does not lead to attacking other, innocent, people. That sort of backlash can only lead to more suppression and worse, and that solves nothing. In fact, it’s another form of silencing.

  18. Kathy D.

    True. Just read that the ultra-right in Germany has had several demonstrations in Dresden supporting “Islamophobia.” Yesterday tens of thousands came to Dresden opposing “Islamophobia,” more than twice as many. Important.

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