Now that six weeks have passed after the shocking events that took place in Paris, it is time to recall and review some of the immediate reactions by people and the media all around the world.
The retort of the people towards the attacks was not only overwhelming, but fascinating as well. Millions of people in Paris and all over Europe took to the streets to demonstrate their solidarity with the 23 journalists. Quickly, the hashtag #jesuicharlie flooded the Internet and became a symbol of free speech for protesters worldwide. And while the image of millions of Europeans standing in unity flickered over the television screens all over the world, many people felt a sense of societal cohesion and pride that had long been forgotten throughout years of crisis and political turmoil in Europe. The omnipresent sentiment was one of defiance, a response that signified “we cannot, and will not let the terrorists win”.
But what does this really mean? Is this the right response to these gruesome murders? The immediate, knee-jerk reaction was an attitude of rebellion, which was later symbolised by Charlie Hebdo’s first cover picture after the attacks. While all these reactions are admirable for their boldness and courage, the core problem of this simplified response becomes visible now that the dust has settled. It polarises and stimulates a reductive understanding of freedom of speech. Uniting people under the banner of #jesuicharlie on such an enormous scale bears the danger of groupthink: it leaves no room for nuanced discussion and renders a black and white image of an extremely complex problem. It completely neglects the further implications of these attacks, and rekindles a doctrine of us versus them. Demonstrating for freedom of speech is by no means an inadequate response. Using Charlie Hebdo as an exhaustive metaphor for freedom of speech, on the other hand, is problematic. The right to expression can only be considered as such if it is applied indiscriminately: yes, Charlie Hebdo has the right to publicise whatever they like, but at the same time critiques have the right to express offence over its publications (in a civilised, non-violent fashion).
While the events of the 7th of January have given the freedom of expression overdue appreciation among the western society, it is the duty of every conscientious individual to fully understand what freedom of speech really signifies. A rational reflection of these events opens up the possibility of paying respects to the victims of the terrorist attacks without propagating the slanted call for free speech that the attacks are now contextualised in.