Are we really Charlie Hebdo?
On Wednesday morning, many of us woke up to an increasingly familiar scene. Terrorists attacked innocents in the centre of a western city; this time in the offices of satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The response was also familiar. As has become ritual, the masses took to social media and adopted a hashtag, #jesuischarlie, expressing their solidarity with the slain cartoonists.
Unlike #BostonStrong or #PrayForOttawa, the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag is inherently political. Many have combined #JeSuisCharlie with the famous declaration — frequently misattributed to Voltaire — that “I disapprove what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” While many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were offensive, particularly to religious communities, the #JeSuisCharlie “movement” recognizes they died for freedom of expression. By saying that we are all Charlie, we say that we will accept this kind of expression whether or not we agree with it.
It is natural for us to want to show solidarity with those who were massacred in Paris, but are we true to those values? Do we practice what we preach? I have considered this question numerous times in my short stint as Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction. While we started this newspaper to deepen dialogue within the Queen’s Law community, more than one student has approached me over the past four months expressing a desire to contribute to that dialogue, but also fear of the social retribution that could ensue for taking controversial positions. No one wants to be labelled an outsider – or worse yet, a radical.
The retribution for Charlie Hebdo’s expression was obvious: their offices were firebombed, editors were threatened, and now 12 of their employees have lost their lives. At Queen’s Law, while we pride ourselves on being inclusive and welcoming of all views, that may not ring true for certain unpopular opinions. Some students fear receiving bad grades if they express opinions with which their professor may disagree. Others fear ostracism by their peers for standing up for non-mainstream views. While I have heard this perspective from students on all points on the political spectrum, much of the trepidation has come from more conservative students who fear the backlash of what they perceive to be a primarily left-wing, my-way-or-the-highway ethos.
These claims may be unfounded. I have faith in my professors and my fellow students that grades and relationships will not hinge on differences in opinion or even heated debate. That said, the uneasiness these students have expressed suggests the culture on which we pride ourselves may not be so welcoming after all.
Charlie Hebdo’s comics were politically incorrect no matter how you slice them. Those sorts of cartoons would never find themselves on this site, as our goal is to create a comfortable forum for debate, not ridicule. That said, pieces that may diverge from the so-called mainstream, be they pro-life, anti-capitalist, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, or anti-Toronto Maple Leafs will always be accepted here so long as, per our disclaimer, they are not “racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive.” To disagree is not to be offended. If we respond to opinions we do not believe in by silencing them — or by making people feel uncomfortable to express them — we cannot claim to be Charlie. In fact, we may even find ourselves on the opposite side.
In R v Keegstra, Chief Justice Dickson warned of the chilling effect hate speech laws could have on controversial, but not criminal, expression. Some expression, like hate speech, cannot be tolerated, but all other forms must be accepted in publication such as this one. To do so is to foster the dialogue and exchange of ideas that allows our society to progress, and differentiates us from societies where debate is suppressed and unpopular opinions criminalized.
The best way to respond to the attack on Charlie Hebdo is not #slacktivism but rather to live by the ideals that were so tragically threatened. If you’ve been holding onto a commentary piece — maybe a cartoon — to submit to Juris Diction because you feared people wouldn’t agree with you, now is as good a time as ever to insert your ideas into our growing dialogue. By expressing, and welcoming, all forms of opinion and expression, we can show those who threaten these values that we are undeterred, that we are not scared, and that we will keep writing. A borrowed hashtag can’t do that, only you can. Join the conversation.
Adam Sadinsky (2L) is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Juris Diction. He can be reached at email@example.com.