Am I Charlie?


Je Suis Charlie demonstration

The Martin Place killings and the Paris murders had one thing in common. They both generated hashtags.  #Illridewithyou and #JesuisCharlie (or #IamCharlie) focused popular response to the atrocities. Their simplicity allowed people to express instantly their solidarity with victims and their rejection of violence. But they also raised complex questions.  

#Illridewithyou responded to the fear that in the aftermath of the Martin Place siege Muslim Australians would suffer vilification. The hashtag rejected divisiveness in the community and asserted solidarity with its potential targets. But some critics believed that it made a premature and ungrounded judgment of widespread xenophobia in the Australian community, and was even likely to create the response that it feared.  Others claimed it obscured the connection they made between Islamic beliefs and the violence.

At its simplest level #JesuisCharlie expressed outrage at the killing of the journalists and solidarity with those who died. But it too could be seen to say something more. It could imply identification with Charlie as the fearless publisher of cartoons that mocked religions.  And in the Australian context it could imply identification with the campaign to repeal laws designed to protect people from vilification on the ground of race. So the hashtag invited people not simply to take a stand but to name the ground on which they stood.  

To identify with Charlie as the victim of violence and to express outrage that people should be killed and maimed because of what they think, say and express is simply right. It is proper to stand with the victims and not with the perpetrators of violence.  #JesuisCharlie places people in solidarity with those killed in Martin Place, the journalists killed in the Charlie Hebdo offices, and the Jewish hostages killed in the Paris kosher supermarket. 

In this sense the hashtag asserts that each human being is precious and may not be treated as things or as means to an end. People must be respected because they are human, and not simply because they are of the right nationality and religion, or because they are morally admirable.  

To identify with Charlie as the publisher and maker of cartoons that mock religious belief is more ambiguous.  It is generous and right if it says that no cartoon, however deplorable we may find it, can strip a person of their human dignity and their right to respect for it.  That conviction surely inspired the Muslim leader to display the commemorative edition of Charlie Hebdo while condemning the killings. It affirmed the obligation to respect the human dignity even of those who mock what is most precious to us.

But #JesuisCharlie could also be seen to entail approving the publication of cartoons that mock people’s deeply held beliefs that form a central part of their communal identity. I would hesitate to do this.   Respect for human dignity entails the right to life. But it also implies ensuring the conditions that are central for their flourishing as human beings. These include their ability to maintain unmolested the beliefs and rituals that are central layers of their identity. These things are subject to reasoned criticism, of course.  But they should not be subject to mockery or abuse.  That disrespects the human dignity of those targeted.

So if #JesuisCharlie identifies us with those whose human dignity is assaulted by violence, it should also encourage us to stand in solidarity with those whose dignity is assailed in other ways. It links us imaginatively to those in the Muslim community who may be abused by being made scapegoats for the crimes of others. It also links us with those whose deep sense of themselves is shaken by cartoons that mock beliefs and practices that are central to their dignity. At this point #JesuisCharlie flows into #Illridewithyou.   

#JesuisCharlie is also invoked to support taking a stand against laws limiting freedom of expression. That claim is plausible.  Certainly the publishers of Charlie Hebdo would have opposed such laws. And even those who accept my argument that it is morally unjustifiable to mock others for their race or religion, may differ about whether this judgment should be enshrined in law. 

But if our solidarity gathered around #JesuisCharlie is based in respect for human dignity, it would more naturally lead us to stand in solidarity with the victims of the irresponsible use of freedom – the powerless members of minority religious and racial groups who are mocked and belittled by powerful people in powerful publications.

Ultimately #JesuisCharlie and #Illridewithyou are commendable gestures of solidarity.  Their logic invites us to identify with all those whose human dignity is infringed upon.  

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Lindt, Martin Place, Charlie Hebdo, #jesuischarlie, #Iamcharlie, #illridewithyou, hashtags



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Existing comments

Am I Charlie? I don't agree with journalists/cartoonists using their power as publishers to belittle human dignity, no matter what point they are trying to make. But words I've used have probably hurt others and so I need to reflect on my own responsibility too. I think that there's an even broader issue here than impinging on individual rights to flourish. It's also about the tone of society. Lack of reverence for the power of words, fiery exchanges and using words/pictures as artillery in a war all diminish us. Words have such a capacity to heal.

Pam | 21 January 2015  

Magazines like Charlie Hebdo and Le Canard Enchaine take a particularly French slant on satire. It is sometimes more than satire: it is often ridicule. Muslims in France, many of who are marginalised culturally and economically and who often identify first as Muslims, would not take kindly to this. This was a highly combustible situation urged on by the usual suspects. Where to from here? The situation in Australia is, fortunately, somewhat different. I think there is a lot to be done in France. Fortunately less needs doing here, but, as Martin Place shows, eternal vigilance is required. To me it's not simply about "freedom of speech" in the abstract but more about bridge building and moving on together. No "right" is absolute but I am wary of curtailing a free press. It is a dilemma we need to work on. There is no "absolute" solution.

Edward Fido | 21 January 2015  

Another problem with Je Suis Charlie is that it sets up a divide between Us (right-thinking people who uphold the rights promoted by the French) and Them (not just jihadists but amorphous entities to the Western mind like Islam or the Middle East). Unless the time comes when we put aside our Je Suis Charlie badges and start saying Vous Etes Charlie, or even (Sacre Bleu!) Tu Es Charlie, then we all just remain living in armed camps.

CLOSE READING | 22 January 2015  

Objections to #Illridewithyou seem to come from a desire to criticize, there are ethical and philosophical issues with Charlie but I think it takes a long bow to get upset by people saying I don't want anyone, especially vulnerable people attacked.

rose drake | 22 January 2015  

Thinking of one of the heroes of this tragic event, a Muslim migrant from Mali (recently sworn is as a French citizen after the event) who saved the lives of a number of customers in the kosher supermarket, perhaps a more worthy aspiration may be "Je suis Lassana".

Bob Faser | 22 January 2015  

Or "Nous sommes Charlie et Ahmed"?

Paul Walton | 22 January 2015  

The most sober and well-balanced treatise on the tragic Martin Place/Charlie Hebdo calamity to date.

Alex Njoo | 22 January 2015  

Thank you & I agree with Pam. Also to think about " ... about the tragedies no one creates a hashtag for?" Worth also reading

Georgina | 22 January 2015  

A right to free speech entails a freedom to offend. That doesn't make it (causing offence) right, or a right. There is a distinction to be made between rights and freedoms. But political violence obliterates distinctions - that's its point. Perhaps very few people who said #JesuisCharlie were indeed Charlie, but they felt that events required them to make a stand - and I believe they chose well.

keith | 22 January 2015  

While I agree with commenter Pam about the desirability of good manners, I would rather not censure anyone who wants to ridicule religion. A good deal of what I was taught in 12 long years of Catholic schooling was the kind of tripe that just asks for ridicule. No Muslims had to read that French magazine, which had a small circulation. In this country I suppose the closest equivalent are student newspapers at the universities, which can be vicious, but free speech is worth protecting.

Russell | 22 January 2015  

In my opinion the commentator that has most succinctly expressed the nub of this issue is the British journalist, Douglas Murray. As he has stated, the challenge facing the West is whether we will allow men with guns to impose Sharia blasphemy laws on us. I find it hard to conclude that they are not succeeding. Many people here and elsewhere raise all sorts of issues about free speech, its limits, its responsible use, etc. But this mainly seems almost exclusively to be the case when Muslim sensibilities are offended. I am not aware that any author in the Australian MSM, including ES, ever criticised Charlie Hebdo's foul cartoons concerning Christianity. Do a Google search on images and you will find an especially salient example in which the Holy Trinity is depicted engaging in a sexual act. I dare say this is because, in accordance with the teachings of Christianity's founder, violence as a response to being mocked was forbidden. (This includes punching people in the face when they insult your mother.) Given the overwhelming silence when Christians are mocked, I think that many people are driven by an understandable fear rather than principles of tolerance and courtesy.

Marg | 22 January 2015  

Canto III Inferno verse 51. So what's to be said?

Bernstein | 23 January 2015  

Just two questions - Do Muslims (or Arabs in general) get satire? Is it part of the literary tradition?

Uncle Pat | 23 January 2015  

I can recall the days of Punch which contained great satire and humour. it seems that these days cartoons are often very viceous and have no respect for human dignity. In the old days there was an important distinction between bullying and teasing. Teasing can be an expression of both respect and affection when one can emphasise human foibles

john ozanne | 23 January 2015  

A most thought-provoking piece.

David Ransom | 26 January 2015  

Andrew, I agree with your last sentence, however I am concerned about how others would perceive my applauding #JesuisCharlie. As a multiculturalist and a member of of the Interfaith community I applaud laws prohibiting Hurtful comments to people of other faiths. I have no problem if others should demean our Lord as that arises from ignorance but in the volatile society in which we live to denigrate the founders of other religions is despicable. I would also wish to applaud you as one of your former students in the then UFT and thank you for your inspiration.

The Rev. Dr. William Spencer | 26 January 2015  

Je ne suis pas Charlie, (et je ne suis pas Spartacus.) Je suis Jean - and I don't like crowds that rally round slogans, "even" as the Russian poet says, "for a good cause."

John | 29 January 2015  

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