Monday, 12 January 2015

Hashtags are not actions

Two events from last week struck at the heart.  They struck at the heart of anyone who believes in the need for free expression.  The events: the killing spree at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, by radical Muslims (for more info. see here); the flogging of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who received 50 lashes for creating a "Free Saudi Liberals" website (for more info. see here).  Over the next few months, Mr. Badawi will receive 950 more lashes.

Social media was a-fire with these stories, especially the Charlie Hebdo killing.  The hashtag #jesuischarlie quickly emerged as people posted messages of support and solidarity, indicating that they value freedom of expression and resist the fear that the killers sought to create.

But what does it mean to say "I am Charlie"?  As for myself, I'm hesitant to make that statement.  The images that I've seen of Charlie Hebdo's now infamous cartoons don't inspire me.  They seem to be puerile, juvenile, repellent. The images would understandably offend any Muslim--moreover, they would offend any sensitive person in 2015.  If I say, "Je suis Charlie," what kind of a discourse am I inviting, supporting, nurturing?

And there's the rub.  If we value freedom of expression - as words, as music, as imagery - then we can't pick and choose.  We have to accept it all.  Freedom of expression can't solely protect those opinions that harmonize with our own.  The true test of our dedication to that freedom is the willingness to be offended.  So the choice is clear: though I'm holding my nose as I say this, "Oui, je suis Charlie."


But that's not enough. For all those who Tweeted their support for Charlie Hebdo, who Tweeted and Facebooked photos of themselves holding pens: it's not enough. You need to take it a step further.  A hashtag is not a political action, a selfie of a pen-in-hand won't make a difference.  To show true solidarity, please considering joining PEN, please consider joining Amnesty International and please use your freedom to aid a writer in need: Raif Badawi.

 In the wake of #jesuischarlie, another hastag has emerged: #jesuisraif. And I wish I could echo those words and say "I am Raif Badawi" as a measure of support on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. But the literal meaning of those words paralyzes me.  Because I know that I am not Raif Badawi. Because I don't believe that I would have had the courage to do what he did, to risk what he risked. Because I don't believe that I would have the courage to face what he must face every Friday until all 1,000 lashes have made their mark across his back--simply for doing what I'm doing right now, blogging about something that feels important.

But what I have done - what I hope that you'll do, too - is write a letter or email protesting his treatment.  If #jesuischarlie, then you know what to do next.

Amnesty International's Badawi campaign

PEN Canada's Badawi campaign


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