Special Reports

What does ‘Je suis Charlie’ mean?

Tomasz Sawczuk · 20 January 2015
What motivates various groups supporting or criticising the editors of the French magazine and what dangers does the Paris attack pose for liberal democracy?

The debate over the killing of twelve people at the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ office has taken a worrying turn. Many people are surprised by the acts of solidarity with the attack victims because, according to them, the cartoonists’ actions opposed free speech. Even more people do not seem to be concerned with the matter altogether. One of the wives of protesting coal miners said on TV that on the 11th January, when the march commemorating the victims of terrorist attacks was taking place, Prime Minister Kopacz ‘went to a party in Paris instead of dealing with the problems of the Polish coal industry’. Do we really have reasons to be concerned with freedom of expression in the name of the problems of foreign and distant France?


Even trying to define the matter of debate turns out to be pro- blematic. Free speech is an element of our broadly understood freedom of expression. The boundaries between speaking and acting, however, are not particularly clear. For example, is the burning of a cross in front of African-Americans’ house by the members of the Ku Klux Klan an example of hate speech (c.f. the Virginia v. Black case)? Their behaviour can hardly be described as peaceful. One can hurt without hitting. All that is needed are so-called ‘fighting words’. But you don’t even need to speak to do it.

In this sense, there is no fundamental difference between speaking and acting. It is not certain that our description will allow us to present the event more accurately than silent observation.

All of us can give multiple examples from their own experience to support this thesis: even the one when a close person is visibly tense and displeased but does not want to verbally admit that she is upset. When we act in a certain way or make the world be what it is, it is as if we were expressing opinions on that. In order to hurt someone, direct contact is not necessary.


Therefore, by forbidding certain actions, we restrict the freedom of expression. These types of restrictions differ with respect to the private and the public sphere. Privately, we can say wha- tever we please, however offensive or insane our views might be. Public statements are constrained by our duties with respect to other people.

Commonly accepted public restrictions on free speech come in a number of different types and are encountered in liberal-democratic countries in different proportions. Examples include the possibility to file a civil lawsuit for the infringement of personal rights, criminal liability for defamation or instigating violence. There also exist informal restrictions, such as community pressure.

These types of restrictions are not prima facie bad, as long as they are aimed at enabling the protection of fellow men from humiliation. The degree of their application will depend on the local customs, and it is surely better when a community tolerates various eccentric accidents or reacts to them at the social level, than when such protection requires legal solutions. For example: Polish politicians often file lawsuits for the infringement of per- sonal rights because they have the right to do it – even though they do not really need to and could solve such problems by issuing a public statement.


France is a unique example in this context. The arguments for the restrictions of free speech do not end with the objection to hur- ting others, but relate to the positive vision of a secular republic.

Could the ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan embody the protest in the name of the protection of free speech? If there is no fundamental difference between speaking and acting, then the example of the ban on wearing certain pieces of clothing in public places, like the burqa in France, does not differ in substance from the restrictions on free speech. It is then rather doubtful that this issue would matter much to the citizens of the Fifth Republic.

After the Paris attacks, the French protested not in support of free speech or even against violence (the republic was introduced using violence and the police killed the attackers), they did so to protect the consistent realisation of the republican values in the form known in France. This is why in France it is possible to publish the iconoclastic ‘Charlie Hebdo’, which, as noted by the ‘New York Times’ David Brooks, could not be allowed on campus of any American university because of its contents.


The example of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ is a great illustration of the pro- blems that arise when differentiating the approach to private and public statements. What should be done when a certain scandalo- us figure (a madman? a genius? a poet?) decides to throw off the shackles of propriety and boldly enter the public arena with his message, like the French cartoonists? That is the question. An act like this – especially when performed by the less well-off – can sometimes reveal the unfairness found in society. An appraisal of such an act will surely not be completely independent from whether we support said figure. Is it then really the case that ‘nous sommes tous Charlie’, we are all Charlie, even if Charlie turns out to be an unsophisticated boor?

Right-wing publicists point out that neither Islamic funda- mentalists, nor the authors of the satirical magazine, acted in the service of free speech. The liberal side retorts, like Brian Beutler did in ‘The New Republic’, that one does not necessarily have to support blasphemous acts to support the right to blasphemy. Is it really the case? If our views are determined both by our actions as well as our words, is condoning blasphemy not equal to supporting it?


One could suspect so, given that only in the last few days there appeared a number of comments postulating the unconditional priority of the freedom of expression over the feelings of the potentially affected individuals. Stephen Law from the University of London stated that, despite fears of the possibility of hurting someone’s feelings, no religion should be exempt from satire, which can act both as a catalyst of truth, as well as art. However, these sorts of functions are likely to be fulfilled by a minority of satirical works. Satire should be able to defend itself without resorting to similar mentions.

A more important argument was presented by Kenan Malik, a British writer. He tries to persuade us that manifestations defen- ding free speech were touching, but they came far too late – after the attacks had taken place. According to him, the moral need for auto-censorship developed in the western countries acts not only against the interests of our culture, but also against cultural minorities themselves, ascribing republican values only to the white majority, simultaneously preventing mutual critique and progress in transforming the relations between the community members.

There emerges a crucial issue of maintaining dialogue between culturally diverse people. According to the theorist of democracy, Jürgen Habermas, and the American philoso- pher commenting on the issue in ‘Kultura Liberalna’, Martha Nussbaum, such dialogue should take place under the conditions of the speakers mutually adjusting to each other, and therefore have a generally constructive character. Placing the emphasis only on the freedom of expression allows for this issue to be easily overlooked and excessively simplifies the picture.


Something else appears to be crucial in relation to free speech, including satire. Liberals do not support the right to blasphemy per se, but rather the right to experimental explorations, inclu- ding the right to be wrong. They also acknowledge the victims’ right to protection. It is worth remembering that ‘Charlie Hebdo’ had to face trials in court. The experimenter must then be pre- pared to face the consequences of his actions, even though the experimental conditions should be reasonably unconstrained.

The latter can, however, lead to a frightening conclusion: if the notorious cartoonist has to face the consequences of his work, he should also face the possibility that someone in multi- cultural France feeling insulted by his drawings may try to kill him. This is the way that the issue is presented by this part of the right wing, which wants to see two types of nihilism in the Parisian attacks that ‘are not and should not be our business’, as claimed by Tomasz Terlikowski.

The consequences being faced by the notorious individual, however, must be found under the rule of law. Its operation de- pends on all of us. Wojciech Sadurski commented on Terlikowski’s words above with the following: ‘when someone says: “I do not support the murder at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, but”– this three-letter word is an access to the party of the journalists’ murderers.’ Therefore, Terlikowski turns out to be a murder condoning nihilist himself.


In his essay entitled ‘In praise of inconsistency’, Leszek Kołakowski wrote that ‘the race of inconsistent people continues to be one of the greatest sources of hope that possibly the human species will somehow manage to survive.’ As he explained, ‘this is the race of which part believes in God and the superiority of eter- nal salvation over temporal well-being, yet does not demand that heretics be converted at the stake; while the other part, not believing in God, espouses revolutionary changes in social conditions yet rejects methods purporting to bring about these changes which openly contradict a certain moral tradition in which these people were raised.’

It does not then make a difference whether we support the ideas of Parisian satirists – this is not what the whole issue is about. The ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan simultaneously means different things, depending on the context in which we put it. And if that is the case, it is about protecting pluralism above all else. That is why some people supplied the slogan with ‘Je suis Ahmed’, in commemoration of the Muslim policeman killed by the attackers.

Not all of us are Charlie or Ahmed, but we can all become them. And it is worth maintaining solidarity with the French today in the name of freedom of peacefully diverging people – even if France herself is not always the best example in that respect.


The problems with religious fanaticism will not disappear by the power of solidarity gestures and free speech demonstrations. In his elaborate and balanced article, the famous representative of the American left wing, Michael Waltzer, stated that the secular left needs protectors from Islamic fundamentalism. Certainly not only the left needs them. But, as noticed by Sheyla Benhabib in her response to Walzer, one cannot deal with fundamentalists by simply declaring war on Jihad: ‘for many young Muslims there seems no way out of the cycle of violence, corruption, and poverty’.

This is why such declarations need to be approached with a certain dose of caution. If someone agrees with David Cameron that in the face of multicultural frictions, we need more ‘muscular’ liberalism, they should remember that our governments do not lack power now – and in a more muscular system, there will rather be less than more freedom. Before we realise, it can stop being liberal altogether, for every ideology is capable of turning into terror in order to achieve its goals.

It is worth bearing that in mind, seeing as EU politicians are already starting to demand larger security concessions, at the expense of our freedoms. The necessity of limiting freedom requires more serious proofs than even the best intentions of our leaders. One can experiment in many different ways.