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A Tale of Two Hashtags 8 January 2015

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Life.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

While I have no hesitation in joining in the chorus of condemnation over the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine yesterday, and absolutely condemn the use of lethal (or indeed any) force against cartoonists and journalists in the legitimate pursuit of their employment (or even, their vocation) I find myself pondering the responses and presuppositions that are being shown in the aftermath of yersterday’s events in Paris.

As a citizen of a liberal Western democracy I take freedom of speech for granted. It is a given for our society. (Yet dig deeper and we are forced to recognise that we do not permit absolute freedom of speech, denying those whose views are deemed too extreme a platform from which to propagate their worldview).

As a Christian minister I take freedom of religion seriously. I expect no privelege, but a do expect to practice. (Yet I am fully aware of the discussions within Christian Theology over free will and predestination, positions for both of which may be found in the Christian scriptures and ever-developing tradition).

In this dreadful case of extremist, religious-inspired violence, two particular lines of though have grabbed my attention. Firstly, that in the world of social media the speed of reaction and the mass adoption of a hashtag as a mark of support is becoming a common phenomenon. Not that long ago, in the aftermath of the Australian café siege, we saw #IllRideWithYou. Now we have #JeSuisCharlie, a simple statement of solidarity, of standing in defence of the publication, and of the freedom of speech it stands for. This is all well and good, but, like all popular movements, there is a degree of division implicit within in it.  “We” stand together. There is “us”, and there are “them”. So what are we to do with, or for, “them”? I noted a retweet in my feed this morning, a plaintive and heartfelt voice that cannot join in: “I can’t say ‘Je suis Charlie’ because as a brown muslim immigrant woman it was my identity that was targeted in their cartoons.” We can chose to reject the alternate view, to stigmatise the “other”, and, as many right-wing political movements would wish, to retreat from multi-culturalism. Indeed these events are gold dust to such groups, who so often seem to seek to muzzle the dissenting view. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, and to be offended, for political groups as much as cultural ones. Nevertheless one of the other defining marks of Western society (that derives from it’s Christian roots, even if they now seem deeply buried) is the protection of the stranger, the other and the innocent. What was so notable about #IllRideWithYou was the solidarity shown to the party most likely to receive victimisation and hostile attention, the community from which the perpetrator of the crime was drawn. It was profoundly charitable, profoundly Christian response (even if many adopting it might not describe themselves in that way). #JeSuisCharlie, while entirely laudable on it’s own terms arguably has at best a significantly reduced empathic connotation. It defends a principle, not a people; a notion, not a nation.

This is where the second strand comes to the fore. Despite the totally unjustifiable act of murder perpetuated against the victims, in the name of a God whom all the People of the Book (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) would agree needs no mere human ‘defence’, the cartoonists, at least, were aware of the potential danger in which they stood. The offices had been subject to attack before. The actions of Charlie Hebdo, by the very nature of their publication, were deliberately provocative. The quality of a faith, and of those individuals who practise that faith, can only be judged by how they respond to pressure and testing. The exercise of the freedom of speech, of views contrary to that faith, is part of such testing. There is no innocence in satire. It’s very intention is to jab and needle, to provoke a response. It did, and there are twelve fewer people alive today as a consequence, as well as heightened potential for troupble in Europe and beyond. In the light of this it is not enough to simply defend one secular Western value, but to also remember those on the fringes, already vulnerable. So yes, #JeSuisCharlie, but it’s also time to #LoveYourNeighbour, whoever they may be, and whatever faith they practise.



1. nickpheas - 8 January 2015

“I can’t say ‘Je suis Charlie’ because as a brown muslim immigrant woman it was my identity that was targeted in their cartoons.”

Kinda. Sorta.

The Charlie cartoons that seem to get the most coverage were lampooning Islam, but I’ve seen plenty going after the pope. I think there are others having a dig at french regional stereotypes that I’m less attuned to. They weren’t just going after immigrants.

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