The easy narrative of what happened at Charlie Hebdo offices on 7 January is as follows: some cheeky French satirists had played the boundaries of acceptable humour, and as a result were murdered by barbaric, humourless throwbacks.

Bristol commemorated the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in a vigil on the 10th of January // Credit: Sam Atkinson Photography
Bristol commemorated the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in a vigil on the 10th of January // Credit: Sam Atkinson Photography

The first response of journalists around the world to the murder of their colleagues was to transform the irreducibly complex situation that produced both the murdered journalists and the young men that killed them, and to cut those killed loose of their moorings in the real world, resurrecting them as sanitised caricatures, pure symbols of “Libertè”.

Are we all cartoonist Philippe Honoré? Non, #jesuischarlie. The individual cartoonists and journalists of Hebdo were condensed down into “Charlie” (along with seemingly all of Twitter) – free speech personified.

Likewise, we are told the gunmen, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, were not troubled and socially excluded young men, whose turbulent inner lives needed to be understood to make sense of the killings. This is at odds with what we were told about Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic Californian spree-shooter who blamed women’s rejection of him for his rampage, resulting in the deaths of 6 others.

No, these men were totems for Islam as a whole. We were told that ‘they’ (Muslims-as-such) hate our values, our right to free speech and that the collective #Charlie had defended those rights to the last by fearlessly pushing the limits of that freedom – racist or not.

A practical question that must be answered if we are to accept this narrative is; “Can we seriously accept freedom of speech is under threat from two Algerian brothers?” Furthermore, was this really even about free speech? Were they killed even primarily for their (obviously racist) cartoons? We really don’t think so, and we want to question the very idea that free speech is foundational to our “western” society.

The basis of our idea of free speech is an economic model of ideas. We are free to say as we like – adding to the pool of knowledge and opinion so that only the best ideas will be acted upon. We imagine this as a free market where anyone can bring their wares to find buyers. If the ideas are racist, then so be it, we hope that right thinking people won’t accept it. When talking about things like selfie sticks and Justin Bieber’s music we literally think and say– “Don’t like it? Just don’t buy it. But you sure as hell are not going to stop people selling it.”

This “anything-goes society” is a lie, we tell ourselves. The media is undeniably run by a tiny rich white elite, huge conglomerates that own media outlets and have a myriad of business and political interests that dictate content. Do any of us really think our speech is “free” when there are so many obstacles into mainstream discourse? We might fain disbelief and act like free speech is really under threat from religious extremists, but even with a cursory investigation, the concept falls down; it doesn’t exist.

Despite countless repetitions of the maxim “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – inaccurately attributed to famous French racist Voltaire – no one will actually put their lives on the line for our right to say anything at all. They might spit bile online about hypocrisy, they will dig up references to Granddads who died in “The War” so “we can say this crap”, probably liken people to Hitler or Stalin and sit back in smug self-satisfaction, but practically fighting for isolated voices is all too rare.

By Matt Hollinshead and Sam Grist