What does it mean to be human? Response to the Public Response to Charlie Hebdo Shooting

I happened to be at my parents’ house when the attack on Charlie Hebdo occurred.  This meant I saw TV news portrayal of the events that I normally would not have seen as they regularly watch the nightly news and both the attacks, the “manhunt” for the gunmen, and the gatherings of people with their signs “Je suis Charlie” were the top news stories for several days.

I was struck by the news coverage and by the outpouring of people whose response was to identify with the satirical publication in defense of liberty and free speech.

It took several days to be able to articulate the problems I was struggling with.

The main problem I felt was how the whole thing was being framed.  The news reported that all these people had come together in France and even in the U.S. in solidarity to publicly express they would stubbornly claim their right to free speech, unafraid in spite of the terror the attacks were possibly meant to incite.

Part of the problem, for me, is the monopoly on what it means to be human.  To be human for those who gathered was to have free speech—which may offend, belittle, insult, and may reinforce or spawn a low opinion of certain persons or groups of people.  This understanding of what it means to be human seems so small and inadequate.  The fact that the news showed hundreds or thousands of people coming together to claim ‘I am Charlie’ and proclaiming their liberty implies that in order to be human they should (like Charlie) be allowed to and protected in saying whatever they want at whomever’s expense.

There are other ways of understanding self which do not fit nicely into the broader discourse of liberal democracy and the sacredness of freedom of speech.  In a set of papers (published in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech) which address the 2005 Dutch newspaper’s publication of a satirical cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad and the framing of the issues, Talal Asad recounts how actually upholding the moral order and belonging to a community has been seen by some as more important than protecting personal property (including the personal property of the body and—I would add—associated personal freedom of speech).  In this scenario, one follows more rules of comportment and so has less freedom in order to be in the community which is makes one fully human.  The overwhelming outcry of supporters portrayed on the news seemed to convey the message ‘free speech = human’ keeps such alternatives invisible and obscures the contingency in the system which ostensibly protects freedom above all else.  As an aside, I find this insight useful in my analysis of data from my fieldwork in Cambodia in which freedom does not seem to be the top priority for empowered women.  I don’t mean here to suggest one understanding is better than the other but merely to hint at the possibility that there is more than one functional understanding of what it means to be human.

Second, despite the rhetoric of those shown on the news, I wonder if freedom of speech is really what’s at stake here.  It’s not as though the government is censoring the publication.  There is not an all-powerful structure (like a military-backed government) that is keeping the newspaper in check.  It seems that the killings were not as much an attack on freedom of the press but an act of terror, a retaliation to the terror that the images likely caused.  This interpretation is not by at all meant to condone the shooting but just an attempt at understanding the event.  The deplorable shooting may seem to simply be an attempt to thwart printing of insulting images.  In fact, the masterminds of this attack may have been doing just this.  But actually, it’s as likely a response to an entire structure of terror that those who orchestrated and those who carried out the shootings have experienced.  The satirical, offensive cartoons may be just a tiny part of this larger structure of terror.  Others have pointed to the type of lives the two gunmen lived.  In his article “Moral Clarify,” Adam Shatz writes, “They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent.”  He interprets their actions this way: “Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history.”  What I mean to suggest is that if the context is so suffocating for people in the shooters’ shoes, they may be fighting against the whole suffocating structure.  And perhaps the satirical publication functions to keep other parts of the structure in place, ostensibly upholding the right to freedom of the press but actually upholding much more in terms of who has power and opportunity.  If this was an act of terror in retaliation of what they experienced as terror, a response partly facilitated by the attackers’ newfound a way of understanding the world and what it means to be human, then we should think carefully and critically at both the monopoly on the rhetoric of how society is to be structured and what it means to be human and even more importantly the actual status quo of life it supports.  Who has which opportunities and who faces which challenges in this status quo?

Like Teju Cole in his New Yorker article “Unmournable Bodies,” I want to ask why is there such an outpouring of support for freedom of speech in this case, but when freedom of speech seems to be at great risk with an all-powerful force—the United States government—collecting mind-boggling amounts of information, there are no street protests or at least no coverage of such protests on the news.  We have learned through Edward Snowden that the NSA collects huge amounts of data on citizens and non-citizens.  This surveillance could conceivably lead to targeting of those who disagree with the government, shutting down those who want to organize or speak out against government action.  Tellingly, Snowden and others who have tried to alert the public to this practice are not protected in their free speech but are fugitives whose speech while not satirical cartoons, offends the power United States government, which cannot be offended.  Cole writes of whistleblowers like Snowden: “They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.”

I realize there are countess factors to consider.  Is there any functional political system in which contradictory understandings of what it means to be human can coexist?  Aren’t whistleblowers also actually acting in their use of speech?  In a similar way almost every claim I’ve made above can be analyzed, questioned, and complicated further and yet these claims expresses why I feel queasy:  There’s an unacknowledged monopoly on what it means to be human which might not be equally good for everyone and free speech does not really seem to be what the outpouring is about.  The struggle, for me at least, is to continue to try to be critical of all-encompassing frameworks, to recognize the limitations and contingencies of these, and also to look at what kind of status quo, not just the rhetoric but the possibilities and impossibilities in society, are being plainly or surreptitiously upheld by the rhetoric.