Belfast Telegraph

Je suis Charlie? It's much easier said than done

By Fionola Meredith

Who is Charlie? To go by the massive global movement of support for the French satirical magazine, following the massacre of its journalists in Paris last week, we are all Charlie. The signs, the flags, the memes are everywhere.

There is nobody, it seems - apart from evil cackling jihadists - who is not Charlie. Like the ice bucket challenge, where celebrities, politicians and ordinary people doused themselves with freezing water for charity, declaring 'Je suis Charlie' is the thing to do, if you consider yourself a decent, compassionate human being. It is how you show the rest of the world that you care. 'Je suis Charlie' equals 'I am a good person'.

That sounds cynical, but it's not. I am not doubting the strength of feeling - the revulsion, the horror, the rage - over the bloody events in Paris. It is right that people demonstrate their utter repudiation of these murders, and show their support for the vital Western principles of free speech and freedom of expression. Such a painful collective jolt, as this outrage has been, can wake people up and make them reconnect with the precious values that underpin democratic societies.

But at the same time we have to remember that we are not Charlie. Nowhere near. Are we, on a weekly basis, testing the extreme limits of free speech? Are we continually blowing a raspberry in the face of Islamic fundamentalism? Are we goading, lampooning or otherwise ridiculing people who might come round to the office and shoot us dead?

No, thought not. Even if we wanted to, most of us would be too scared. I know I would. The vast majority of us are not freedom fighters on the front line of radical self-expression. Here at home, in Northern Ireland, there are still plenty of things that are publicly unsayable - or that feel like they might be so, in this fearful, traumatised place - and we know that recourse to violence remains the default mode for lawless elements in our society. It won't be jihadists who lob a brick through your living room window, but the power to control through terror, or even the possibility of terror, is still present here.

What I'm saying is that it's very easy to say that you are Charlie. It's an awful lot harder to put it into practice. But the urge to self-identify, to place ourselves at the centre of a story, is a powerful impulse, whipped on by the fake intimacy of social media. The bodies were barely cold in Paris when numerous obscure writers, bloggers and artists were rushing online to insist that they, also, were Charlie. And that's where it can get a bit distasteful. 'Je suis Charlie' starts sounding like 'I am a hero too'.

Besides, I'm not convinced, on existing evidence, that there is a deeply-rooted commitment to freedom of speech out there. If anything, the prevailing current has all been the other direction, finding ways to shut people up, with threats of hate crime prosecutions if need be, in case they cause offence. We live in a culture of forced apologies: fulsome yet ultimately meaningless, and usually with a fair pinch of pious self-righteousness chucked in. For a recent masterclass in the art, see Tony Blair's appearance before the Commons Northern Ireland committee over the on-the-run letters. Welcome back, Messiah, it's been a while.

Many people act as though there is some God-given right not to be offended, and behave as if offence itself was like some sort of toxic chemical, deadly to our fragile sense of self-esteem. Worse still, they prattle on about tolerance and respect and equality and then get their fascist faces on when it comes to things like insisting that Christian bakeries must be forced to make cakes with slogans supporting gay marriage. But that's OK because they're being intolerant of intolerance, right? Or maybe they're just being intolerant.

Speaking up for freedom of speech is not easy and it's often unpleasant. At its extremes, it can get you killed. But even on an everyday level, it can make you feel pretty uncomfortable. You have to stand alongside people with whom you profoundly disagree, whose views you may find inexplicable or harmful or revolting. You might not feel brave enough to defend those views to the death, as Voltaire famously advocated, but if you really are Charlie you must be prepared to fight for people's right to hold them, and to express them with freedom.

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