Hashtag Culture and the Death of Debate: Why we are still stuck on a defunked Clash of Values Narrative
The first I heard about the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office was a stream of mysterious #JesuisCharlie statuses on my Facebook feed. Intrigued I opened up a few news websites to find out what all the fuss was about. The news itself I found to be devastating but hardly shocking given recent events and developments – after all only last month we witnessed two notable atrocities by Islamic-inspired extremists – first in Australia and then Pakistan. What really shocked me was the nature of the worlds’ reaction, and I feel our hashtag culture is half the problem.
The solidarity hashtag #jesuisCharlie proliferated like wildfire on Facebook, Twitter and news media alike. The problem is, this emotive display of solidarity – and more over defiance – so reminiscent of the social media age’s other great struggles (e.g. The ‘Arab Spring’s’ “We are all Khaled Said” campaign), proscribes us immediately to a singular and un-nuanced narrative of events. By fetishizing the Satirists of Charlie Hebdo for their role as the ultimate exponents (and as such symbols) of the right to freedom of speech, we fool ourselves into accepting as granted a narrative whereby the whole conflict is between those who would defend the liberty of freedom of expression on one hand, and those who would seek to violently suppress it. In reality this narrative is a mere projection of our decision to express our defiance through solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo Satirists, instead of, for example, the police officers also killed. To substantiate this theory we can note the location of the attackers’ last stand two days later as they took and held hostages in a kosher shop. With this revelation we might have been moved to express our defiance through solidarity with these hostages who, being in a kosher shop, would have inevitably been assumed as symbolic of Judaism and that tinderbox of Jewish-Muslim relations (at least as far as extremists are concerned) – Israel. This being the case, the narrative would no longer be one of defending freedom of speech, but instead a more complex narrative about the Palestinian problem. Both would remain projections of our own conclusions.
The reason that this trend is so problematic is that #jesuisCharlie has effectively obliterated 12 years of hard-earned learning in a single hashtag, for by adopting unquestioningly a narrative revolving around the right to freedom of speech, we are devolving to what should be a heavily defunked narrative championed by George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address, a response to the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre: the infamous “Clash of Values” narrative. This narrative, as much as it is academically untenable, is also highly dangerous in that it inflates the actions of three gunmen to the attitudes of an entire religio-cultural group. Not only is this narrative conducive to rampant Islamophobia, already a dire issue in European societies, but it also stifles any attempt to debate the causes of the attacks. By blaming it on a religious ideology that is apparently opposed to freedom of speech, we accept that nothing can be done, nothing could have been done and, ultimately, all other contributing issues and factors are taken off the table, thereby absolving our own society of any guilt or culpability. As long as such a narrative – cathartic and comforting as it is – continues to proliferate unchallenged, such tragedies will continue to unfold. This is because until we have an honest debate on the root-causes promoting radicalisation in European societies, this radicalisation will continue unabated. Furthermore by allowing such an environment of misunderstanding to remain, we only promote an increasingly Islamophobic society – a hostile environment for all Muslims that will only push others towards the path of radicalisation.