'Je suis Charlie' and the people who are not Charlie

The spirit of 'Je suis Charlie' could be expressed as a viral version of e pluribus unum

On the streets of Paris and at the red carpet at the Golden Globes, and across the electronic boulevards of social media that crisscross the world, the words "Je suis Charlie" are everywhere.

The phrase means "I am Charlie" in French. It's a Facebook-ready slogan that has become, for many, an expression of goodwill, for others, a deep philosophical problem.

Not everybody is Charlie, and not everybody wants to be, it turns out.

Last week, the phrase became an instantly and widely embraced pledge of allegiance to the left-leaning satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, where 12 people were massacred by two gunmen in the heart of Paris, probably over the publication's provocative drawings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

The spirit of "Je suis Charlie" could be expressed as a viral version of the words on the American seal, e pluribus unum — out of many, one. Charlie Hebdo, we are with you; the values of life and liberty are universal.

The sentiment proved powerful enough to ripple through languages and across the globe after the attack, quickly spinning off into the German "Ich bin Charlie" and Spanish "Yo soy Charlie."

Although "Je suis Charlie" is a new phrase, its spirit has deep roots in the Internet age, where the personal frequently turns into the plural.

"We are Anonymous" is the shibboleth that announces communiques from the Internet hacker collective Anonymous. "I am Michael Brown" and "I am Darren Wilson" were two of the most common slogans supporting the Ferguson, Mo., 18-year-old and the police officer who killed him last year. "I can't breathe" became a popular activist chant protesting Eric Garner's death at the hands of New York police; Garner had repeatedly uttered those words before he died.

"With social media, these kinds of opportunities present themselves all the time," says Rob Horning, an American theorist who studies and writes about social media. "People feel pressure to get in on these big events where everybody understands the reference point and makes their claim to it.... [The] sympathy and narcissism are inseparable."

Slate's Amanda Hess noted that this kind of communal phrasing had achieved notoriety at least as early as the 1960s, recalling President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech and the cinematic scene of a group of Roman slaves defiantly announcing "I am Spartacus" in the 1960 Kirk Douglas classic.

"What was once a rhetorical flourish has become the default mode of showing solidarity in the hashtag era, where the political only reaches viral heights if it's suitably personalized," Hess wrote, noting the ability of hashtags like #WeAreTrayvonMartin to turn a name into a rallying point for protest.

"The construction of [an 'I am'] chant is so effective exactly because it's both personal and political, both individualistic and collectivistic," says Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist and sociologist. "I think that's a big reason why these movements are able to explode in social media, because instead of those two impulses being in conflict, they work together."

But the use of many such slogans, while intended to express unity, also reveals deep political disagreements over whose story gets told after a tragedy.

Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, after all, were not the only people who died last week. The gunmen also killed shoppers at a kosher market and three police officers, one of whom was Muslim, in a series of attacks that ultimately left 17 victims dead and a nation traumatized.

As the days have worn on, "Je suis Charlie" has given way to increasingly fractured expressions of solidarity with France's embattled Jewish and Muslim minorities, who have been the target of hate attacks across the country, but who have received less attention than the targets of the massacre at the magazine.

"Je suis Ahmed" and "Je suis musulman" emerged after Ahmed Merabet, the Paris policeman who was Muslim, was executed in the street while trying to stop the attackers. His life, his sacrifice and his identity as a Muslim and a public servant were quickly embraced by the Muslim community.

Then there was "Je suis Juif" — I am a Jew — which spread after another gunman linked to the original attackers killed four shoppers at the kosher market in Paris. That phrase did not spread as widely as Charlie's, some noted. "The attack on the press shocked the conscience of France and of the world," New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch wrote. "The attack on the Jews, not so much."

There was also the irony of world leaders with poor records on free speech at home converging on Paris to march in solidarity with an outrageous magazine, and the rather touchy matter of whether grievers wanted to identify with Charlie Hebdo and its politics at all. Although the magazine's cartoons aimed at all parties and faiths, its cartoons depicting Muhammad were considered by many to be especially taboo.

That's what started "I am not Charlie," among those who condemned the killings but also deplored the cartoons.

Far-right National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen said the magazine's "anarcho-Trotskyist spirit" had contributed to the corrosion of "political morality" in France. "Sorry, but I'm not Charlie," he told a crowd over the weekend in Beaucaire.

Several writers publicly struggled with trying to separate Charlie Hebdo's specific messages with defending the magazine's right to free expression — which was another casualty of the attack, says Horning.

Hebdo skeptics "feel like by condemning Charlie at this point, they're somehow endorsing the terrorist act," Horning says. "That's something that's forced on them by the nature of terrorism itself … to shut down a complex and fluid accounting of society, in which people can reason with one another."

One Frenchman's sign summed up the contradictions best during a massive rally in Paris over the weekend: "I'm marching, but I'm conscious of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation."

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