Liberal Heroes of the Week #83: Charlie Hebdo, #jesuischarlie

by Stephen Tall on January 9, 2015

cf hero charlie hebdo

Charlie Hebdo

French satirical newspaper
Reason: sticking up for the right of people everywhere to provoke, to stir, to offend

Am I Charlie? On one level, almost certainly not. I wouldn’t have drawn the cartoons they drew: mockery of religion and deliberately offending others isn’t my thing.

And if I had received a death threat I’d probably have been more than tempted to shelter indoors, rather than keep on running headlong into the storm.

‘Je suis Charlie’ is not a statement of fact (a rather obvious point to have to make), but a declaration of solidarity with the right of those who’ve chosen a different path to pursue it without fear.

Three articles have stood out for me in all that’s been written this week. First, some brilliantly unequivocal words from The Times’s David Aaronovitch:

This is the deal for living together. The same tolerance that allows Muslims or Methodists freedom to practise and espouse their religion is the same tolerance that allows their religion or any aspect of it to be depicted, criticised or even ridiculed. Take away one part of the deal and the other part falls too. You live here, that’s what you agree to.

Secondly, Nick Clegg has highlighted a point too often forgotten by those who look to the law to defend them from offence:

Some of those who died on Wednesday had drawn cartoons which they knew were offensive to others. But no one ever deserves to be killed just because they have caused offence. This is the bottom line: in a free society people have to be free to offend each other. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended. You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other.

And finally, here’s Kenan Malik angrily tearing into the ‘fake liberals’ who imagine they are protecting minority communities when they seek to censor what they consider to be offensive:

What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, exiled to India after death threats, or the Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death last year for ‘insulting the Prophet’. What happened in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was viscerally shocking; but in the non-Western world, those who stand up for their rights face such threats every day.

In reality – in our crowded, cosy, day-to-day lives, when it’s easier to nod along with the demands of the offended wanting to silence the offensive because we fear being thought insensitive – few of us are Charlie.

This week, we’re all saying #jesuisCharlie. But life moves on. The challenge will come next week, and the week after, when the horror of Paris has receded, and a group-with-a-grievance once again tries to salami slice the principle of free speech (“we’re just asking that people use their freedom responsibly,” they’ll say).

Perhaps the hashtag we need is #jemesouviensCharlie?

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.