“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” or Two Reasons We Should Reject Polarization

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(Le Huffington Post Quebec Graphic)

Today, at least two masked gunman stormed the offices of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, killing 10 employees and two police officers in an apparently sophisticated act of terrorism performed by likely veteran fighters.

The reaction from the West has been enormous. Large protests against the brutal attack have sprung up in Paris, Berlin, New york, Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome, and Moscow among others. The rallying cry at these protests and on Twitter is “Je suis Charlie” or #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) expressing unity with the victims of this murderous attack.

I understand the sentiment and the urge to unify in the wake of tragedy. Let me make it clear that I unequivocally condemn the murders of these ten citizens and the two police officers heroically attempting to protect them. However, I find the #JeSuisCharlie reaction wrong for two reasons: Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are racist and I refuse to reflexively accept a false dichotomy fallacy.

Charlie Hebdo is purposely offensive and publishes blatantly racist, anti-religous, crudely drawn cartoons in the name of “satire”. Many of these cartoons show images of the prophet Muhammad that many Muslims find offensive because their religious beliefs prevent them from depicting people, especially the prophet. At this point I do not doubt some of my readers might be thinking to themselves, “So what? Those aren’t my beliefs. They should get over it.” Well, that’s an entirely different kind of post, but if you are okay with offending other human beings simply because they do not share your cultural values, then I think you could use some remedial training in empathy. I recommend this not to insult you but as sincere advice, because undoubtedly as globalization continues and younger generations come to age you will be left behind.

But even if you think it’s okay to purposely antagonize people on the basis of their religion, I do not think most Americans think it’s okay to promote racist stereotypes. Culturally, we have been conditioned a little better to identify these and reject them. Most Americans would not be comfortable publicly labeling themselves racist. And yet this was in a way the overwhelming reaction to today’s events. Charlie Hebdo‘s depiction of Muhammad and other Muslims (which I have decided not to republish out of principle) are very similar to Nazi Germany and modern White Nationalist depictions of Jews. They both have exaggerated noses and are illustrated as ugly by a Western cultural standpoint. These types of images promote negative visual stereotypes and are meant to dehumanize the subject being represented. Americans can easily spot and decry these types of caricatures of black people both at home and abroad, but today it seems like the racist depictions of Muslims and/or Arabs were nearly universally overlooked by the Je suis Charlie movement, including prominent, usually sensible, liberal journalists such as Vox’s Max Fisher.

“But it’s satire,” some might say. I won’t get into a definition of humor because that too is another topic entirely, but let me suggest that there’s a difference between laughing with and laughing at. Furthermore, antagonizing and dehumanizing the members of an entire religion for the acts of a few extremists, who have (needlessly) denounced those extremists—and who have been the greatest victims of those extremists—is indefensible.

So, for the simple reason that I am not a racist who makes a habit of purposely harassing, humiliating, and dehumanizing entire religions, I am not Charlie. Je ne suis pas Charlie.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it? But in times like these it never is. By saying, “I am not Charlie,” some might take that as a tacit endorsement of mass murder or censorship. And herein lies the greater problem: polarization. As simple and satisfying as it is to reduce this to an us versus them issue, the fact that the “us” in this case is a company that makes a profit promoting hate in the form of tasteless, racist cartoons should make us take pause and reassess the purported sides. We do not have to support the lesser evil. Just because a group of ignorant cartoonists who made a living promoting stereotypes were attacked by those we perceive to be our enemy doesn’t mean they are our allies. I am not “victim blaming” or an apologist simply because I refuse to glorify or honor Charlie Hebdo.

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Max Fisher, usually right, is wrong.

The reaction to today’s act of terrorism is in this way similar to the reaction to North Korea’s hack of Sony and the threats over the release of The Interview. People went out of their way to buy a movie they might not have normally been interested in because of an imagined free speech issue and/or patriotism. But if these recent attacks have made you for the first time in your life defend terrible comedy films and racist cartoons, perhaps it would be wise to step back and reassess your belief system.

The teachable moment here is that you do not have to allow cyberwar or terrorism to force you to choose a side. You can refuse to be polarized. By choosing a side you only benefit the interests of the people, groups, and corporations that side represents—not yourself. Choosing to make a statement against North Korea’s attack on the sovereignty of the United States by spending your money on a garbage film in no way benefits you. It supports a (foreign) corporation whose sole aim is to make a profit. Likewise, making a stand against terrorism on a Western country by advertising a company that makes money selling purposely inflammatory, racist cartoons aimed at inciting people against religion does not benefit you. Again, you are simply giving free advertising to a company that couldn’t care less about your well-being.

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“I am a billboard for a company that brought Syria-style warfare to my city.” (AP Photo)

What has amazed me by today’s events is how journalists have rallied around Charlie Hebdo in solidarity. The impressive thing about terrorism is how effectively it can change the behavior of people either through fear, bravado, or simple human tribalism. My Twitter feed today was filled with journalists who would never publish a Charlie Hebdo-like cartoon under their own name acting like the weekly newspaper was bravely defending freedom. Similarly, many people I have great respect for reposted the famous Voltaire quote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” What I am left wondering is who they are defending against. The French government protects the free speech of Charlie Hebdo and undoubtedly every conceivable effort is being made to bring the murderers to justice. Free speech was not under attack today. It was the rule of law and the safety and security of people that was under attack.

So again, who in this instance is being defended against? And how are they prepared to give their life in this defense? As of this moment the identities and affiliations of the murderers have not been confirmed. But when they eventually are confirmed, will these people join in battling against them—going as far as sacrificing their lives? Will they join the French military, who is simultaneously deploying soldiers both to Paris and a carrier to the Indian Ocean to potentially join operations against Islamic State? The answers here are probably, “No.” But by allowing ourselves to be polarized and using emotional, violent language as a response to violence that is being nearly universally condemned, we almost certainly improve nothing.

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Political violence in the Information Age

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The internet’s role in changing 20th century political norms is well known, especially since 2011’s Arab Spring movement and social media’s huge role in it. But it is not just social media that is supporting radical change. In 2014 the most Googled “recipe” in Ukraine was for Molotov cocktails (beating Easter bread, homemade pizza, and “Vyshyvanka cake.”)

What did Google point these inquiring Ukrainians to? Answer: A Wikipedia article in Russian about Molotov cocktails.

As a millennial I naively wonder, “How was this knowledge passed around before the internet?” Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t have an entry for Molotov cocktails. In the 1990s it seemed like you could find things like this in the Anarchist’s Cookbook, but that was still online. Said Cookbook’s only publisher stopped publishing it because they had a “responsibility to the public.” Ironically, Wikipedia’s priorities are more populist by disseminating information on how to make homemade incendiaries.

Like all discussions about the internet, it poses the question, “What did we ever do without it?” Obviously, political violence, insurgencies, and revolutions existed before the internet, but can they exist without it now? Al Qaeda infamously eschews digital communication in favor of couriers, but they have been completely eclipsed by Islamic State as the premiere jihadist movement in the world. And IS has no qualms about using the internet to promote their ideology. Their media arm frequently posts polished videos to YouTube of their human rights abuses (I won’t post a link here) leading to incredibly successful recruitment around the world. Even the music, radio, and television hating Taliban has trolled ISAF on Twitter.

Somehow we have reached a point in history where jihadist message boards have become passé (they’re so 2000s.) That’s political violence in the Information Age.