Author - Anthony Lang

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo
A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo

The attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week generated a groundswell of support for the right to free speech. The attacks, supposedly perpetrated by two French brothers of Algerian descent, resulted in the deaths of 12 individuals working at the magazine, including four cartoonists and the editor. Recent cartoons in the magazine ridiculed the leader of the ‘Islamic State’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the past, the magazine had been targeted for cartoons mocking Mohammed as well.

After the magazine posted on its site the simple phrase, ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ it quickly became one of the key trending terms on Twitter. It echoes the famous decision of Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, to headline its story on the September 11 attacks with the phrase ‘Nous sommes Americains’, or We are all Americans. Both these statements represent moments of solidarity in response to horrific acts of violence.
But, unsurprisingly, such acts of solidarity are not so simple. Soon after the term began to appear, debates swirled on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere about whether or not we should adopt this phrase. Some responded by cautioning about embracing free speech so simplistically, pointing out that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons are quite offensive (and they are not only limited to insults to Islam, but other religious and political beliefs as well). Others argued that we should not only be upset by the deaths of French journalists, but the hundreds of thousands killed in conflicts in the Middle East brought on by the actions of Western powers such as France. Still others have argued that the problems Europeans (and North Americans) have integrating Muslims as immigrants and citizens are behind such attacks.

What I find interesting about this debate is the underlying assumption of the Je Suis Charlie Hebdo response. The assumption is that we should all be the same or all accept the same beliefs concerning free speech, religious belief, or political life. I wholeheartedly condemn the attacks and think those responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law. But, I’m not so sure I want to be Charlie Hebdo and adopt their particular expression of free speech. And, as a student of the Middle East for many years, I’m concerned at the demonization of Muslims and Islam that have been taking place in Europe in recent years and that seem to underlie some of the responses emerging from this attack.

But I do believe strongly in the liberal right to free speech. So, instead of declaring myself to be Charlie Hebdo, I suggest turning to one of the most important defences of liberty ever written – John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Written in 1859 by the English philosopher, the text provides a defence of liberty, particularly freedom of speech, as a good for society. But Mill does not defend liberty because it will make us all the same. Rather, he defends liberty because it creates a space in which ideas can be aired, examined and debated. Like the famous Speakers Corner in Hyde Park London, Mill envisions a public space in which individuals can make their case and must defend it before others. The brilliance of his argument is that he believes free speech is not just about giving individuals the right to speak but, even more importantly, it will make society a better place.
Of course, the global political space is not like Speakers Corner. Power differentials, historical injustices, and access to wealth and technology give some a louder voice than others. But, this does not undermine Mill’s basic point. The best defence of free speech is one that recognizes how radically different we are, but encourages us to listen to each other. We can disagree, and indeed, we should. But without listening to each other, we won’t know what to disagree about.

Once more, I condemn those who have undertaken this attack; indeed, they violated Mill’s ideas even more, as they sought to prevent discussion and debate about ideas with the least political tool of all, violence. At the same time, I don’t want to be Charlie Hebdo. I want to see satirical cartoonists, listen to believers in an Islamic state, and hear as many other opinions as possible. To hear them all will allow me to think differently about myself and the world around me – and it will, hopefully, make the world a better place, filled with diversity and difference rather than unity and similarity.

A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum

Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently wrote the following concerning the referendum on Scottish independence that will take place on Thursday:

So a new idea of citizenship is emerging. It is not cosmopolitanism if that means that national loyalties do not matter. It is a citizenship that upholds national identities while recognising the benefits of shared sovereignty – the kind of citizenship Scottish people can understand: being Scottish, British, European and a citizen with connections with a world wider even than that. It is not abstract: it represents how people now live their lives – connected constantly through mobiles and the internet, able to communicate with anyone, in any part of the world, at any time – involving an identity that is, for individuals, more a matter of choice than at any time in history.

Brown’s intervention is in the context of his support for keeping Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. What is interesting is he puts it in terms of global citizenship, something that one wouldn’t expect in a debate between two sides that seemed very fixed on their understandings of nation and nationalism. Brown’s point, here and in other places, is that the United Kingdom can and will change, but devolving into smaller sovereign nation states is not the way to go. Rather, a new kind of citizenship and a new constitution is necessary to bind the UK together and simultaneously give it the chance to become part of the world in a different way.

His arguments have a strong appeal for me. Brown’s understanding of cosmopolitanism is close to my own – a mix of local, national, regional, and global orientations that allows us to understand and act in the global political sphere in new and interesting ways.

I know that for many in this country, Brown is a polarizing figure. His role as Chancellor under Tony Blair was part of the New Labour process of shifting the United Kingdom toward more neoliberal economic policies. And his tenure as Prime Minister was filled with stories of bullying and poor governance. But since leaving 10 Downing Street, Brown has embodied the kind of cosmopolitanism he describes above – he advocates for his own small constituency in Fife yet continues to speak on issues of national and global importance. Unlike his predecessor, whose cosmopolitanism is the jet setting world of the corporate executive, Brown’s cosmopolitanism is Scottish, British, European and global.

Many friends and colleagues have strong views on the independence debate, and even in my own family we do not all agree on what is the best route for Scotland. Much of the argument for independence has focused on economics and culture, both of which are important. What I like about Brown’s point, though, is that it’s about politics, the kind of politics that I think is most important – citizenship, constitutionalism, cosmopolitanism. Moreover, these are concepts that are not distant and unimportant in the debate, but actually underlie the more prominent issues of currency, pensions, and the future of the NHS.

There are, of course, very good political arguments on the side of independence. They include the centrality of self-determination, disparities in power, and a vision of social justice in Scotland that is more progressive than the current UK government. But too many of these arguments for the Yes campaign remain insular and localised. I believe, like Gordon Brown – and like other important figures such as Pope Francis – that division and borders are not necessarily good things. Rather, I want a Scotland and United Kingdom that is part of the world in a new way.

In fact, the reason I can’t vote in this referendum is partly the result of the sovereign state system that creates artificial barriers. I’m an American citizen who has worked in the United Kingdom for 10 years. Two of my children were born here. Citizens of EU countries and some former Commonwealth countries residing here can vote, but for reasons that perhaps have more to do with the United States than with the United Kingdom, I don’t have that opportunity. Brown’s vision of a different kind of world, one in which a kind of global citizenship creates new opportunities for political engagement might allow me to vote on my own future (truth be told, I have indefinite leave to remain and am only not a citizen because I don’t want to pay the exorbitant fees – but why should I have to pay money to become a citizen?).

An independent Scotland might be able to engage in the world in this new way, and if the vote goes for independence, I hope it will. But I think the danger of nationalism, a negative nationalism that wants to find conspiracies and dangers in those ‘down South’ will only lead to further divisions. I agree with Yes campaigners that having a say in how you are governed is really important. And, there is certainly no guarantee that a united United Kingdom will create the kind of cosmopolitan representativeness that Brown advocates. But it gets closer to the global politics that I support, one that sees through and beyond the insularity of a single sovereign state to a wider global constitutional order.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.