Sunday, January 11, 2015

On solidarity

Forget Charlie Hebdo for a moment. Start somewhere else. Consider a little community in Colombia, Las Pavas. The people of Las Pavas have a small cooperative agrarian community. Their lifestyle apparently suits them. Unfortunately, their land has attracted the attention of an international company that wants to extract palm oil. The people of Las Pavas are trying to say no to the exploitation of their land, and to the corrupt and violent processes by which an international company has attempted to take it from them.

If bullets can answer words, the people of Las Pavas, and with them a hundred other communities: indigenous people, the poor, or even simply people who choose peace, have no chance whatever.  The greed of the neoliberal order and the obsessions of the consumer culture will answer words with bullets without a single thought if they can get away with it.In fact, none of us have any realistic possibility of resisting the violence of our culture with violence. We organize, we protest, we speak, we persuade, and we cannot do any of these things effectively if a bullets can answer words.

That explains why je suis Charlie, and why je suis Charlie matters so much.

Not everyone agrees: some of the most quoted pushback has come from Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian. Mr. Canfield makes the point that free speech does not free Charlie Hebdo from criticism. His criticism focuses on the way he considers the editors Charlie Hebdo failed to navigate the distinctions between the places in the world, such as Europe, where some Muslims suffer oppression, and the places some Muslims oppress others. Whatever the merits of that argument, it does not change the reality that two men with Kalashnikovs attacked a satirical magazine and killed eight journalists and cartoonists, as well as police officers protecting the offices. In a wholesale and brutal fashion, the gunmen answered words with bullets. A brief look at the firepower available to those governments committed to the neo-liberal politics and economics makes it extremely clear that the poor and powerless in the world will suffer most if the murders at Charlie Hebdo go unanswered.

The civil justice system provides three minimally violent ways to respond to violent behaviour: denounce the action, deter others from doing the same thing, and disable, or restrain, the offender from repeating the crime. The murderers appear to have died in battles with the police, so nobody can restrain them; the only deterrence available to us comes in the form of denunciation. We can say to anyone tempted to answer words with bullets that we will not accept that bullets can answer words, ever. We will continue to speak, because if we all speak for the one voice silenced with bullets, then violent people cannot silence a voice unless they kill us all.

We can only succeed at this if we all stand together, which means we will frequently have to say that bullets do not answer even the words we most hate. If we fail to stand up for all speech, silencing a voice simply becomes a matter of convincing enough people to view the speaker as "irresponsible", and then answer them with a bullet. And once again, the advantage belongs overwhelmingly to the existing order. They control established channels of communications. They have the means to buy popularly trusted voices and plausible intellectual arguments.

Mr. Canfield, and those who agree with him, have every right to decline to stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, to pick and choose the speech they will fight for. But I believe they have some responsiblity to take account of the effect the proposition that bullets can answer speech, any speech, will have for the poor and the powerless. If Mr. Canfield has an alternative to solidarity of the human voice against the bullet, I do not think I have yet seen it.

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