Like the rest of the watching world, I remain appalled by what happened on January 7 at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Yet, I haven’t embraced the phrase “Je suis Charlie.”
Truth is, I can’t say I know exactly what it means. Of course, I can translate those words into English—easy enough, even if I hadn’t taken French in high school. But what does it mean? I’ve never held an issue of Charlie Hebdo in my hands, and I don’t recall even hearing of the publication until the vicious attack a little over a week ago.
Am I, like so many of us in the West, a staunch believer in free speech?
Did the murders of cartoonists, editors, columnists, police officers, and others horrify me?
Was I inspired when the grieving city of Paris marched together and proclaimed that extremists would not hold it hostage with fear?
Yes, yes, yes on all counts. But, "am I Charlie"?
For the record, I wasn’t comfortable using the #iammalala hashtag either, though it had a much clearer meaning—an indicator of of support for education as a human right, as Malala stood up for girls in places where they have traditionally been denied schooling.
As inspiring as I find Ms. Yousafzai, the young Pakistani Nobel prize winner and human rights advocate, I don’t feel comfortable saying I’m “her,” despite being in awe of her intelligence and bravery. I share her conviction that all of the world’s children are entitled to education, but I’m wary of assuming this trending hashtag. (I have given her book, also titled I Am Malala, as a gift multiple times).
Even with such widespread popularity, hashtag activism is too easily to adopt and its issues du jour too easily forgotten. The stakes are low: no money is spent, no dialog ensues, no sacrifices are made in support of a people or cause. Sure, quickly claiming the legitimacy of an act of misjustice or the pain of a tragedy to which we’ve just been introduced may make us feel part of something significant. It can let us articulate, using social media, that we recognize and pay attention to matters more weighty than cute cat videos or silly memes. Trending hashtags can raise awareness to introduce us to important causes. But most times, social justice-related hashtags serve as an immediate ego boost because we get to associate ourselves with likeminded, well-meaning people. Hashtag activism might even make us feel a rare and truly human connection with our favorite celebrities.
This past Sunday night at the Golden Globes, George Clooney concluded a speech with heartfelt words in support not only of the people of Paris, but of unity and freedom of speech. Clooney said:
To reiterate what we’ve all been talking about, today was an extraordinary day. There were millions of people who marched not just in Paris, but around the world. And they were Christians and Jews and Muslims. They were leaders of countries all over the world. And they didn’t march in protest; they marched in support of the idea that we will not walk in fear. We won’t do it. So, Je suis Charlie. Thank you.
But for how long—even given Clooney’s particular luminousity—will we remember the deaths not only of those in the magazine office but the four Jewish Parisians who were also murdered that week by terrorists? And what about Muslims who have been victims of hate speech, threats, and violence before and since the extremist attacks? How will #jesuischarlie affect real healing and change in a fractured world? (I can’t help wondering what the hashtags #justiceforTrayvon and #mikebrown ultimately did to bring about justice and healing in America.)
In his Essay on Criticism, written in 1709, poet Alexander Pope warned that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” I believe in raising my voice and lending my support for victims of injustice and disaster, but my own efforts are most useful when I spend time digging deep, becoming well informed, and getting my hands dirty.
I would hope that trending hashtags might be the first step to deeper engagement with important issues. But I also see how hashtag activism is “a dangerous thing” because it allows us to approach a shallow spring, take a sip, and then splash a little water in the direction of glowing coals. We then turn away before we see that we’ve done nothing of consequence to extinguish the hate or injustice that fuels that fire.
Faced with tragedy and brokenness, we can try to take a hiatus from commenting, arguing with each other online, and tapping away on our laptops in order to remain still before a living God, the Word made flesh, asking how we may best to use our own tongues—organs that Proverbs 18:21 says can bring death and life—to help bring about justice and peace in our hurting world.