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Columns

Ha ’18: Message to the non-Charlies

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, January 29, 2015

In response to the shootings that targeted the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, many have recently risen up under the slogan “Je suis Charlie,” which translates from French to “I am Charlie.” The slogan sympathizes with those who were killed in the massacre, thereby supporting freedom of speech and of the press.

There are, however, differing opinions on the incident. Herald opinions columnist Peter Makhlouf (“Makhlouf ’16: “Je ne suis pas Charlie, Jan. 22) and many others took a difference stance. “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” which translates to “I am not Charlie,” was their slogan. They argued that the real blame laid in the French magazine that ridiculed Islam.

Some of them even went on to suggest that the “I am Charlie” movement is guided by nothing but a feeble political motive seeking to unite the West under nationalism and fanaticism.

Is this true? The answer would depend on what we, as society, should value more: freedom of expression or politeness. If communicating politely is so important, to the extent that we believe the right to free expression can be abridged, then we may be able to justify the action of the terrorists to some degree.

For me, what is more important is definite — and I reached this conclusion by reflecting on a childhood incident.

One peaceful day in sixth grade, I was walking around like an idiot with my pants zipper wide open — unintentionally, of course. A girl whom I barely knew walked up to me and boldly shouted, “Your fly is open!” With a flushed face, I hurriedly pulled it up.

While the girl was honest to my childhood self, in the grown-up world, there exists a social norm that prohibits people from being honest at all times. We no longer shout to each other about open zippers. The discomfort tied to such confrontations discourages us from speaking up.

From this experience, unimportant perhaps in appearance, I learned to argue for the importance of freedom of speech: the right to free speech allows us to live without fear and helps us overcome each other’s differences. In fact, I can now thank the girl who suggested I pull up my zipper, for that was the right thing to do, albeit a slightly unskillful way of accomplishing the goal.

We must remember that the right to freely express an opinion is the most fundamental freedom upon which our nation was founded. This was, in fact, our very first amendment to the Constitution.

Though such freedom may evoke humiliation, this should not, by any means, serve as a reason to restrict it. If humiliation or anger follows as a consequence of expressing an opinion, then that is a repercussion we need to humbly accept in order to construct a civilized society.

This freedom was won through countless sacrifices. Suppressing it would undermine a valuable right that is enjoyed in only a handful of nations.

Does this mean that I believe ridiculing others’ beliefs is a brilliant idea? Absolutely not. Effective journalism derives not only from freedom, but also from wisdom. Critiques are effective when they are creative, not antagonistic. Media that only has freedom, not wisdom, is nothing but a babbling child seeking attention.

But words are never to be met with violence, even when they are not communicated in a subtle or empathetic fashion.

Let them be. If they seek to insult, so be it. If they are rude, overlook their vain efforts. Humiliation that derives from the rude nature of some opinions is a fait accompli of a free and civilized society.

If violence is justified, the attention becomes wrongly centered on the less significant issue. The public begins to miss the point. An action to justify utilizing violence as a response mechanism blinds us from the truth. I fear many journalists and columnists are pursuing this erroneous path.

Let us return to my childhood anecdote for a moment. The action of the French magazine is really not comparable to pointing out an open zipper, but rather to making fun of the pants itself. A rather rude and personal remark, indeed.

But even so, the best course of action certainly would not be to fight back with fists.

A movement to cherish freedom of expression should never be threatened. When a movement, at its core, has as its purpose treasuring honesty and sincerity, it is our job to remove hurdles in its path.

It is unfortunate that some choose to use the valuable right in our society of free speech with immaturity and disrespect, but as a civilized community, we must respond with maturity and respect.

Brown, fortunately, is one of the communities where the right to free speech is universally enjoyed — and we must be thankful for it in every situation, even when rudeness and humiliation may be involved. Nothing must shadow the necessity to fight against violence that puts society’s most important freedom in jeopardy.

David Ha ’18 is doing his best to take advantage of the right to free speech. He can be contacted at woosuk_ha@brown.edu

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  1. this is crazy and ahistorical .

  2. Sam Davidoff-Gore says:

    I don’t think most of the critics of “Je Suis Charlie” condone the violent acts. I certainly don’t. But it’s important to remember that while the violence is abhorrent, Charlie Hebdo was insulting. It’s unfair to most of the critics to label them as anti-free speech. I think most of them think along these lines: You have a right to be stupid and I’ll defend that right, but I’m still going to point out that you’re stupid. Tim Minchin does a really great bit on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYchB7Kxuvs.

  3. “Brown, fortunately, is one of the communities where the right to free speech is universally enjoyed”

    ha ha i wish

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