Kirkland: Nous sommes tous Charlie, however much we disagree with them

Will Kirkland, Columnist

When walking to the Bastille Metro station from the east, just before you descend the stairs under the old Metropolitain sign, you can see for a moment the massive, green Colonne de Juillet framed perfectly by the trees lining the boulevard Saint-Antoine. It is an image of Paris in all of its expected beauty, a boulevard culminating in a grand column commemorating the long Revolutionary struggle for freedom and fraternity.

Not five blocks north from the bustling Place de la Bastille, on Wednesday, 11 civilians and journalists at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and one French Muslim police officer charged with guarding them, were savagely gunned down in the middle of an editor’s meeting.

Every morning this past fall on my way to classes at the university Sciences Po, I’d see that image of the Bastille on my way to the metro. I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo before Wednesday, but for four months I unknowingly shared a metro stop with its writers, cartoonists and editors. Only two weeks after I had flown back to the United States, my old neighborhood had been completely transformed from the spitting image of classic Paris to an epicenter of fear and a new ground-zero in the war on the freedom of expression.

What Charlie Hebdo published in its weekly paper was highly provocative — this in the country whose left-wing politicians celebrate Robespierre, whose president is an atheist and whose tradition of tolerance gave the world ménage à trois. As David Brooks wrote in a New York Times column on Friday, their cartoons were so provocative they would probably never have been published on an American college campus such as our own. Looking through some of their controversial cartoons in the last few days, I’d even say that I was offended by some of them, and I’m not Muslim or Jewish, nor am I particularly religious.  If you look through some of them, I think you might have the same reaction.

Despite the newspaper’s potentially offensive remarks, we still shared the “Je Suis Charlie” image on our Facebook pages all the same. We still tweeted the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag. Some of us even wrote a column in tribute and support of “Charlie.”

Does our doing so mean that we support what they wrote and drew?

One cartoon from 2013 depicts a Jewish man with an over-exaggerated nose and an Uzi, gunning down a Palestinian woman and shouting, “Here, take that Goliath!”

I find cartoons like that offensive, and not even remotely funny.

But I joined the many millions of others who paid their small tribute to the newspaper all the same. Je suis Charlie. And that’s the whole point.

Freedom of expression is not about defending the words and cartoons that the majority of us would support. It’s not about defending what all of us would feel comfortable posting on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Freedom of expression is about defending what most of us would not publish on social media, what we might shudder at or grimace about in polite company, what would make us feel uncomfortable. The entire point of freedom of expression is the protection of the kind of thing that the majority finds overly provocative.

As George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend — against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.”

The truth is that we are not all Charlie, at least not individually. I probably wouldn’t have published those cartoons, because I don’t necessarily agree with them and even so, I don’t think I would have had the courage to do so. But we are all Charlie, together. Because we believe in the cartoonists’ right to offend, we applaud their satire that challenges us, we cherish their role in our democracies, we believe in their cause of freedom to say anything to anyone.

This coming Wednesday, with the help of the French daily Libération, Charlie Hebdo will publish its next issue with a print run of one million copies. I hope it will be for sale in all of the corner newsstands of Paris, especially at the one in the Place de la Bastille.

The appalling massacre of these journalists — and the attacks on other civilians and police in the days after — are a horrifying rally cry for freedom of expression and solidarity. However far from the Bastille and Charlie Hebdo we may be, we can all rightly say, “Nous sommes tous Charlie.”

William Kirkland is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].