On October 17, 1961, tens of thousands of Algerians demonstrated in Paris against the sanctions France imposed on them after the war in Algieria. The protest was nonviolent, held in the name of free expression. The protesters assumed, it seems, that this value, considered routine in France, would let them express their suffering and anger, even if their positions differed from the government’s.
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Surprisingly, the Paris police, under the command of Maurice Papon, whose collaboration with the Nazis came to light only many years later, responded with a great deal of violence. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested and hundreds murdered, some of them thrown into the Seine by policemen. The exact number of dead remains in dispute to this day because the police’s homicidal action was silenced and evidence hidden and censored. Thus the incident was erased from France’s collective awareness.
Much water has flowed through the Seine since then. On January 7, 2015, terrorists identified as members of Al-Qaida murdered 10 members of the editorial board of the Charlie Hebdo weekly magazine and two police officers in the first of a three-day series of terror attacks. The murder was engraved in the French psyche as President François Hollande described it when he reached the site: “an attack on freedom of expression.”
It seems that without taking away from the force of the condemnation of the act, some thought should be given to the concept of “freedom of expression” and its blind spots. The developing discourse in response to the terror attacks continues to prove that freedom of expression is given only to those whose voices the government wants to hear. Put simply, it is allowed only for those who control the language, in the broad sense of the term – those who have profound familiarity with the culture, history, power structures, nuances and layers of meaning, use of collective associations and also a certain attitude – and not another – to humor.
The past few days have revealed that freedom of expression is firmly protected and enforced, and is becoming a symbol of the French republic and of the enlightened West as a whole precisely when it has been used to mock sacred symbols and a weak and oppressed minority population, such as the cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed that were published in Charlie Hebdo.
Despite the claim of this writer that some of the controversial cartoons really do suffer from vulgarity and sometimes even racism, they can also be interpreted in different ways, so they should not be censored. Still, they should not be raised high as the ultimate expression of free speech. It goes almost without saying that there is a yawning gulf between criticizing the newspaper and breaking into its offices with Kalashnikov rifles – and any attempt to bridge that gulf would be immoral.
It seems that just at this time, when voices in the media, social networks and the Parisian street are heard bleating slogans such as “We are Charlie,” “National unity” and “Democracy against barbarism” in unison, it is important to let a different voice be heard. This voice will whisper that freedom of expression will eventually become an empty slogan as well and be revealed as flawed, lacking and false if it is perceived as a value whose purpose is solely to protect those with power.
If freedom of expression is precious, as the current consensus indicates, then it should be adopted right now to show democracy’s blind spots. Repeating the mantra “We are Charlie” will only lead to an arrogant digging in of heels. But a new, more polyphonic conversation that reflects the complexity of the power dynamics between the part of the world known as “the enlightened West” and the minorities who live inside it – its former colonial subjects – and takes real responsibility for past injustices, and that understands the implications of this responsibility in the present, may be able to reduce the violence, the silencing and the terrorism on both sides.
The writer is a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University’s School of Cultural Studies.