‘Je suis ce que je suis...’

 how in blazes did we manage to go from ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ in January 2015, to... this? What power can possibly be left in that slogan, anyway... if it can suddenly be applied to a perfectly unremarkable non-event, in which no one’s right to freedom of expression was even remotely under threat?

I’ve written a fair amount of newspaper articles in my time... and in so doing I have often found myself writing some seriously weird stuff (even by my own standards of weirdness... which, if I say so myself, are in a league of their own). But not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would one day start an article by quoting ‘Popeye The Sailor Man’... in French.

As you can see from the headline, I only got as far as: ‘I yam what I yam’. And I may as well stop there, because... well, there isn’t a very great deal to the rest of the song, is there? “Je suis ce que je suis que je suis ce que je suis... Je suis Popeye le Sailor Man! Poop, Poop!”

But you might, at this point, be wondering WHY I would indulge in such an eminently pointless exercise in the first place. I’m afraid the answer is a lot less interesting than the exercise itself. Because everyone else is doing it, that’s why. Hardly a week goes by without someone or other choosing to inform the rest of the world of their own imagined identity (as though the rest of the world had any reason to care) ... in French.

First (in 2015) it was ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’; Then, ‘Je suis Daphne Caruana Galizia’. More recently, ‘Je suis Charles Scicluna’. And just this week, ‘Je suis Seb Tanti Burlo’...

Even at a cursory glance, you will surely note something of an evolutionary trajectory taken by those four cases alone. Let’s start with the first one, which refers to a very specific event. In January 2015, two masked gunmen (later identified as members of the Islamic group Al Qaeda) stormed the Paris offices of satirical newspaper ‘Charlie Hebdo’, killing 12 people and injuring another 11. It was a terrorist attack in retaliation against Charlie Hebdo’s long-standing tradition of mercilessly lampooning world religions: including (but by no means limited to) Islam. And, in case I didn’t stress this detail enough earlier... it left a dozen people DEAD.

That explains the birth of the widely recognised ‘Je suis’ Internet meme: originally, the idea behind that slogan was to protest against the violent curtailment of the (supposedly universal) right to freedom of expression. People identified with those murdered ‘Charlie Hebdo’ journalists, not necessarily because they liked the newspaper, or approved of its message/methods... but because they were horrified by the violence itself, and also deeply perturbed by the underlying implications.

It is frightening (to say the least) that the cost of expressing an opinion should ever be set so high. Apart from the chilling effect those murders may have had on ‘Charlie Hebdo’ itself... there is the rest of the media to consider, too. And indeed everyone else, seeing as we’re living in a time when everyone has instant access to a platform with potentially global reach.

The 2015 attack could not be viewed as an isolated event: it was interpreted (quite correctly) as an attack on freedom of expression as a whole. By using the ‘Je Suis Charlie Hebdo’ slogan, people consciously identified more with the principle represented by that publication, than with the thing itself. And with good reason: for though it may be used for different purposes, the ‘freedom to speak’ is a right that belongs – or should belong – to everyone equally. To clamp down on one case, is inevitably also to clamp down on ALL cases, everywhere.

But nor can the event be viewed in isolation from the violence that characterised it. There does, in a word, have to be some sort of ‘clamp-down’ to justify a global protest in defence of ‘freedom of speech’. So much so, that had Al Qaeda’s reaction been limited merely to verbal criticism, instead of cold-blooded murder... what would there even have been to protest about? How many people would have been moved to identify with the slogan, ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’? Obviously, none: because there would have been no violation (still less such a bloody one) of the underlying principle at the core of that particular protest.

The same is perfectly true about the second item on the list. Like those 12 journalists, Daphne Caruana Galizia was also murdered. She wasn’t merely ‘criticised’... she was killed. Big difference, that. And the analogy is apt for other reasons, too. Like Charlie Hebdo, Daphne was a controversial and divisive figure in life (and even more so, it seems, in death). It is no secret that a great many people in this country took mortal offence at both her ‘message’ and her ‘methods’... but as with Charlie Hebdo, you didn’t need to actually agree with Daphne, or identify with anything she represented, to be horrified or appalled at her murder. The act of repudiating a crime doesn’t require being on the same political page as the victim. And apart from the horror of the act itself, there are also the inevitable repercussions: if someone (anyone) is killed for expressing an opinion (any opinion) ... it follows that other people will in future think twice about inviting the same consequences in their turn.

In the long run, this can only mean the ultimate defeat of the basic principle of freedom of speech. ‘Speech’ cannot be described as ‘free’, when the price paid for actually speaking is death. And that, ultimately, was the original purpose behind the ‘Je suis’ motif.

Today? Not so much. This week, for instance, my online feed was awash with the words: ‘Je suis Seb Tanti Burlo’.  I hate to say it, but my first reaction on seeing those posts was to think: ‘Oh no! Don’t tell me something happened to poor old Seb...’

But it turns out that... well, something did happen to him, I suppose. He was on the receiving end of a (perfectly predictable) verbal backlash, on account of a deliberately provocative cartoon that he drew and shared online. A lot of people, it seems, took offence at that drawing of his, and pretty much told him so to his face (or at least, to his Facebook wall). And... erm... no, that’s it, actually. Luckily for all concerned, there is simply nothing more to report. He wasn’t murdered (not at the time of writing, at any rate) ... he wasn’t arrested... he wasn’t even made to recant publicly by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, under threat of torture.

Instead, he was merely criticised, in a series of online reactions which – though everyone seems to have forgotten this tiny detail – are themselves also examples of ‘freedom of speech’ in action.

Which raises the question: how in blazes did we manage to go from ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ in January 2015, to... this? What power can possibly be left in that slogan, anyway... if it can suddenly be applied to a perfectly unremarkable non-event, in which no one’s right to freedom of expression was even remotely under threat?

The same, naturally, applies to the earlier case regarding Archbishop Charles Scicluna. But I’ve already written an article about that... and boy, did it get a lot of ‘verbal criticism’, too. Does that mean I’d be justified in starting a ‘Je suis Raphael Vassallo’ campaign... even if: a) nothing actually happened to me as a result of that article; b) my freedom of speech was not in any way hampered, as you can all see from the fact that I am still writing, and; c) the only consequence of any note was a little (perfectly predictable) verbal slagging off here and there? (Which I invited myself... and which, in any case, is par for the course for anyone who shares his own opinions in public?)

I fail to see why not. After all, unlike all those other slogans... it’s actually true: I am Raphael Vassallo, whether I like it or not. (Or to say the same thing in French – a language I have just discovered lends itself admirably to rhyme – ‘Oui, c’est vrai... Je suis ca, en effet...’)

But I’d be the first to agree that it would be absurdly out of place... if not downright insulting to others who did, in fact, pay a terrifying price for exerting their freedom of speech. Heck, even Popeye the Sailor Man has more right to that slogan than myself... or some of the other cases where it was used. The cartoon ‘Popeye’ was, in fact, censored on a number of occasions... some episodes were banned from TV, because of their less-than-flattering depiction of the Japanese in World War Two, for instance.

From that perspective, ‘Je suis Popeye le Sailor Man, Poop, Poop!’ no longer comes across quite as ‘deliberately provocative’ as I fully intended it to be in the opening paragraphs. That alone should tell us something about the danger of misapplying a powerful slogan, so that it eventually loses all its punch.

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