You Keep Using That Word

It's hard to talk about the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo without sounding like you're either a) apologizing for violence or b) spouting tired platitudes about free speech.

I mean, sure, like everyone else, I fully condemn the attacks, given that being offended is not a reason to, you know, shoot people. I feel really weird having to say that. Like they joked on The Daily Show, I sometimes worry if I'm being "denouncy" enough.

But there was something in France's reaction to the attacks (all those myriad "Je suis Charlie" placards) that rubbed me the wrong way, though I was having trouble identifying what it was.

Then I read about the arrest of Dieudonne M'bala M'bala and it provided a clue. He's a French comedian who was detained for a Facebook posting in which he said that he "felt Charlie Coulibaly" - a play on the name of magazine that was attacked, and the name of one of the attackers.

It's a gross thing to say, of course - some may even call it offensive - and yet he was arrested for it, literally days after thousands of people in Paris demonstrated in support of free speech - in support of "Charlie".

So I hope you'll forgive me if I have reservations about how "free speech" is practised in a country that apparently has no problem with that level of contradiction. I hope you'll forgive me if I express doubts about how "freedom of expression" is practised in a country that has implemented an outright ban on niqabs in public. To quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

There's this impression that the rallies in France and around the world are all about defending this very abstract notion of free speech, divorced from actual content - that the actual substance of Charlie Hebdo's weekly satire is irrelevant to whether it has a right exist. That's how it should be, of course but, like I said, I have my doubts everyone sees it that way, even among those who claim to be defenders of free speech.

Religion in general - and Islam in particular - are not sacred cows in France. It's easy to defend a magazine that directs its insults to stuff that you don't really care about or, better, something you actively dislike. It's less easy when the insults are directed at something you do care about. When Dieudonne M'bala M'bala said something the French found truly offensive, they reacted.

I mean, what if Charlie Hebdo had been a supporter of the KKK? What if they had made a habit out of mocking the victims of 9/11? What if they had insisted on denying the Holocaust every week? In other words, what if the magazine had been truly offensive to Western sensibilities? Would people have been as quick to jump to its defence?

It's possible that the rallies would have happened just the same - but somehow I doubt that there would have been quite so many "Je suis Charlie" signs.