Dissonance on the Downtown Mall

altrightcvilleprotest

As the sun began to set on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA, the tone of the evening quickly changed. I went from sharing boisterous laughs with a group of colleagues to end our day to encountering a large crowd gathered outside of the iconic Miller’s Bar and Restaurant, chanting and waving signs. Known as the bar where the Dave Matthews Band had its start, one could imagine it could attract large crowds. These were not fans surrounding rock stars, however. These were protesters denouncing a famous blogger of the alt right and local Charlottesville resident – Jason Kessler.

Kessler, like other internet personalities of the alt right, immediately decided to record the event on Periscope (through Twitter), denouncing the protesters who were labeling him as a Nazi and a fascist for his views. “These people have come up and have been harassing me, they’ve been out here for half an hour,” complained Kessler, who recently was sentenced for disorderly conduct and ordered to complete fifty hours of community service after having punched an area man while collecting signatures back in January. He also has been in attendance at recent alt right demonstrations in Charlottesville, including the Lee Park torch rally that went viral on social media.

As I stood face-to-face with the protesters, the police, and the alt right, I saw that there was dissonance and no dialogue. Protesters were chanting “Nazis go home,” but the reaction of the alt right members (who claim they do not represent Nazi/fascist views, yet still have not found a way to prove this…) was to record, to ask questions, to troll and taunt, and eventually after the social media post was made, to go home. The only interaction they had with their opposition was mockery.

For the alt right online following it was a perfect storm: Kessler could post ideal content – a video of himself surrounded by a mob of angry protesters – to fuel the fires of other social media followers of the alt right. Though protesters were also using their devices to record the situation, their mission was clear. When I spoke with them, they were upset that such a figure of the alt right lived in Belmont – near the Downtown Mall – an area where “families live and children grow up.”

Knowing that the alt right could use this footage as evidence for whatever future actions they wanted without even addressing the fact that they were being denounced as “Nazis” in a public space was not satisfying for me, particularly as a WWII researcher. So I decided to ask the tough question directly to the alt right, to see if they could respond.

“I hear these chants and I see these signs from your opposition, but I don’t hear you. Can you explain to me how you are NOT in fact, Nazis?”

Kessler’s friend seemed surprised by my question, and very willing to answer. Their claim was that they felt stifled by the left, that they could not voice their opinion without receiving shouts in return – stifle tactics that did not give them access to their First Amendment rights.

Granted, I replied, but they were evading the question. How then is the alt right not Nazi or fascist for the views it maintains? “Just like Richard Spencer, I don’t agree with everything Kessler says or does,” said his friend, “but I’m here to support him.” What did that mean? To support what exactly? As an academic, I felt like I needed to pry the sources, the evidence, the research – but all I was receiving in response was rhetoric and non-answers. Were they in fact conscious of the similarities and simply afraid to expose themselves, or was it that no one had ever asked them such a question monotonously?

I didn’t receive any concrete answers to my question. The claim was made that they were trying to disassociate themselves with violent right-wing movements, but how could they say that when I was walking close to an online personality who had physically punched an opponent? All that was there was instigation devoid of ideology.

Knowing conflicts like these continue to erupt in my new home every week or so is jarring. Though Charlottesville is a positive community by nature, the striking political disharmony that currently exists resonates long after both sides have gone home.

The Hungarian Attack on Academia

A remarkable story that has passed under the radar of top headlines could signal darker times ahead, particularly for those in higher education. Heti Világgazdaság (World Economy Weekly) is a Hungarian magazine that recently reported on actions taken by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Papp Réka Kinga, a journalist for the magazine, acknowledged that Orbán’s actions have “robbed the state universities of their autonomy,” particularly in the case of Central European University (CEU). But how? And for what reason?

If you are unfamiliar with CEU, don’t feel alone. Many would be shocked to hear that its founding was the result of many talks starting in 1989 and culminating in 1991 with the fall of the Iron Curtain. The aims of this university were to confront head-on the intellectual challenges present in former East Bloc countries. And its founder is none other than the (in)famous George Soros. Aside from his net worth and political involvement, many are unaware that Soros escaped a Hungary that had once been under the control of the Nazis. His experience may very well signal his support for the university, as well as other measures, such as his continued endorsement for a common EU treasury and other open society measures in an effort to avoid nationalism on a broader scale. 

Let’s return to the situation at hand under Orbán. As was reported in The Week (April 14, 2017 issue), the Orbán government “wrote a bill to shut down [Central European University]” after having made severe cuts to “social science disciplines that would be most useful in dealing with the massive refugee crisis,” replacing these courses with “state-sanctioned political science.” (14) Following these measures, Reuters reported that Hungarian students have marched to Parliament, protesting “what they said was a crackdown on free thought.” (See article here)

The Soros-inspired concept of “open societies” is in diametric opposition to the tenets of far-right populist movements – such as Orbán’s – that have gained momentum in countless countries worldwide and continue to advance steadily, as emblematized by the upswing in support for politicians like Marine Le Pen. Orbán’s party, Fidesz, is considered a nationalist right-wing party whose aim is to contradict neoliberal notions of globalized, plural societies. His discourse favours those who have been disadvantaged economically by policies enacted in the Eurozone, distrusting the entire European Union in place. 

The Soros Foundation incarnates the values of neoliberalism and has often been targeted as funding leftist protests, particularly during the 2016 American Presidential Election. It is interesting that the attack on neoliberal ideologies has arrived at the doorstep of an academic institution. The New York Times notes that Soros is viewed in a similar manner by the Hungarian government, saying that he “embodies global capital [and] has been exerting his influence, through his money, in the entire world.” Though some on the left would even agree with this statement, the actions of attempting to use government force to close a university has unearthed fears of neofascist elements reinstating themselves in society. 

The European Union has since sanctioned Hungary, stating that democratic values and free speech are at stake. As was reported in SwissInfo.ch, First Vice President Frans Timmermans had concerns as to the constitutionality of the proposed legislation. Timmermans stated that “the vision of an open society, of a diverse society is under threat.” 

What are the implications of such measures? Though we have focused much attention on the waves of Brexit and the possibility of Frexit should the right have their way in France, could Central Europe be a weaker chain in the EU than was observed before? Finally, what role will higher education – particularly institutions founded on neoliberal or globalist doctrines – play in the coming years? Is higher education under attack, or are right-wing politicians trying to reshape the academic landscape to conform to their Weltanschauung

Fascism or Freedom? In Trump’s Trail: My Experience at a 2016 Rally

After a long day at work I usually choose to take a step back for an hour or two and indulge a bit in social media and news. As of late, my entire newsfeed has been filled with screaming headlines that serve to either damn or praise candidates in the 2016 Election. The chasm between the left and the right has been widened enormously this year, allowing for a new wave of what otherwise would have been considered fringe ideologies to infiltrate mainstream politics.

One very noticeable ripple in the political pool has been Donald Trump’s overwhelming success as the GOP front-runner. The majority of mainstream media outlets,  individual bloggers, and even icons of the GOP have tried to paint Trump as a cringe-worthy, crazy man whose despicable ideologies are worthless. At the beginning of the election cycle, some had even tried to brush off Trump’s political campaign as a blip on the radar that would quickly dissolve in the face of establishment picks like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

But it didn’t dissolve. Trump didn’t waver, and neither did his support. Surprisingly enough, the Trump campaign has brought new support to the Republican party from young voters, formerly apathetic citizens, and even former Democrats. He has taken politics by storm not only by his controversial demeanor, but due to the fact that he is effectively representing a large faction of the country that felt itself to be without a voice. Trump supporters have even labelled themselves as being The Silent Majority who are openly upset with the status quo. They are often painted as being uneducated, closed-minded, xenophobic, nationalistic, and racist members of society who tend to live in rural areas.

The criticism of Trump that interested me the most was the fact that so many people have been calling him a “fascist,” stating that his rallies were a good likeness to Hitler’s rallies, and his support base similar to those who had supported the NSDAP in Germany. As I conduct research relevant to that time period, I felt that going to a primary source – in this case, an actual rally itself – was necessary for me to make a better judgement without the filter of media outlets or my own personal views getting in the way.

Here’s a summary of the rally I attended today, with a brief analysis following it.

The Art of the Deal: Understanding Trump’s Mass Appeal

A Timeline of the Trump 2016 Rally
Warren, Michigan – March 4, 2016

IMG_20160304_165255Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

5:30 AM – Dearborn, Michigan

My alarm rang before the sun had even risen. I put on a patriotic sweatshirt and made my way to the event venue, some 40 minutes away from my home. It was cold and dark outside. Ice was frozen to my windshield. Given the ungodly hour and the bitter cold, I had imagined that others would arrive a bit later.

6:15 AM – Warren, Michigan

I was wrong.

The event details on Eventbrite had mentioned that the doors would open at the venue at 6:00 AM sharp. By the time I had entered the parking lot it was half full. My Ford Focus blended in nicely to the lot composed almost entirely of American-made vehicles. People walking into line had Trump paraphernalia, flag shirts, and veteran baseball caps.

6:20 – 6:45 AM

I walked over to wait in a line of what I would estimate to be around 600 people, more or less. What surprised me the most was how many young people were lined up. A group of young men from an all-boys Catholic school had decided to spend their Friday morning waiting in the cold as well, wearing their varsity jackets with pride. They were all seniors anxious to cast their first votes.

IMG_20160304_170020
Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

The people in line were chatting about the GOP Debate that had taken place at the FOX Theatre, making comments about the performance of the candidates. The quotes I’m writing are the best summary I can make for not having recorded the conversations I heard:

“I’m irritated by Rubio and his attempt to always cut off Trump – he’s immature. No wonder Trump gets mad,” said one man talking to another supporter in line. The man nodded and replied: “It’s a shame the media tries to make Trump into the bad guy. He’s got a personality like a normal human being. I don’t think the media likes his style, but guess what, that’s who he is. I thought liberals were supposed to be the ones who didn’t stereotype people.”

Another group of supporters touting the “Make America Great Again” baseball caps were trying to huddle together to stay warm as we waited in the frigid morning air.

“I had to take off work to get here today, I know it’s going to be worth it,” smiled over a woman hiding behind her puffy jacket. A man next to her smiled sadly, shrugging his shoulders and saying: “I don’t have to worry about that anymore, I got laid off. Trump gives me hope I’ll get a job again.” Supporters surrounding him in line looked back to give a solemn nod of support.

As we slowly shuffled closer and closer to the doors, the conversation in my part of the line switched over to the Democratic candidates.

“Those Bernie supporters don’t understand anything about how an economy works. They just keep asking for free stuff, don’t they?” laughed a middle-aged man over to a man who was obviously a Millennial. “It’s all of the hipsters and the people who chose bad college majors who are complaining,” he replied. “I worked hard and got a job. I know that college is really unaffordable, that’s true, but they really sound entitled with all of the demands they’re making. It’s really narrow thinking. There are bigger problems right now.” Another man nodded, “…and one of them is this cold. I hope we can get inside soon.”

6:48 AM – 7:10 AM

Exiting the cold threw me into yet another line – this time to get through a security checkpoint with metal detectors, a few police dogs, and an inspection of all bags. Everyone lined up was sporting something patriotic. People were smiling, showing pictures of their dogs to one another, and talking about how far they had driven. A man next to me told me he had driven all the way from Jackson and hadn’t slept just so that he could see the man who “made him interested in politics.”

Once we arrived at the security checkpoint, the police required me to throw away my water bottle before entering the event. “Either you go back to your car and put it there, or you throw it away here. That’s a projectile and it’s not allowed.” I threw it away. The police opened my purse and seemed unimpressed at the array of books inside. I was passed through the checkpoint.

7:20 AM

Bleachers were set up around a podium with Trump’s logo on it. The room was swarming with people who must have arrived even earlier than I had. An older woman came up to me, smiling with a large volunteer sticker on her Trump 2016 shirt. “Good morning, young lady!” She warmly directed me over to a table filled with posters to wave during the speech.

Demographically speaking, the room was filled mostly with whites, with males outnumbering females. There were a few minority participants present, and one Muslim woman wearing the hijab. Her mere presence was an act of protest, but no one seemed to try to harass her. She was sitting quietly on her cell phone. The event officially started at 9 AM, but I was shocked to see that seats were almost gone at that point. I managed to squeeze myself into a set of bleachers that had a good view of the stage.

“Welcome, fellow Trump supporter!” smiled a man behind me as I took my seat.

IMG_20160304_170940
Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

7:20 AM – 9:00 AM

Regardless of political affiliation, Americans that feel comfortable with one another tend to be very open and friendly at any sort of event. Nothing was different at the Trump rally for me since I fit the demographic. A very enthusiastic woman in the marketing field took her seat next to me and started telling me how excited she was to see Trump. Her husband mentioned that the campaign was “electric” in comparison to Romney’s run. He said he had finally found someone he could fully stand behind. She pulled out three of Trump’s books from her purse to show to me. “Have you read them yet? It’s a must. I learned a lot about the way he thinks and I like it. He’s a go-getter. We need that.”

There were two Baby Boomers behind me, both smiling and using social media to post about Trump.

“I always feel so bad when someone makes a negative comment on what I post,” said one of the ladies to her friend, shaking her head. “I don’t understand it. He stands for a lot of great things.” The woman sitting next to her nodded enthusiastically. “My husband is a retired police officer. He doesn’t feel respected by our President. You know what’s crazy is that I voted for Obama the first time around.” “I did too.”

To my right were two college freshmen.

“Shit, I lost another follower. Why don’t people listen to what I say? I don’t unfollow or unfriend liberals.” His friend rolled his eyes. They began taking smiling selfies with their Trump gear. I smiled over and asked them if this was their first election. “Yes! I’m so glad I can actually stand behind someone. Romney was so boring and McCain had no chance. Trump knows how to deal with all kinds of people. He’s legit.”

People seemed to feel genuinely connected to Trump, even though he wasn’t ever a part of the middle class. I insinuated that a few friends of mine didn’t understand how Trump could connect with the middle class and received an interesting reply: “That’s because they don’t get that a guy like Trump has to think about the whole structure of his corporation. The biggest part is the little guy. He knows he’s on a pyramid of people. Unlike those other Wall Street people, he’s trying to put us first.”

I wasn’t encountering uninformed people. They had formed opinions after thinking about them. Granted, there were a few supporters in full American flag gear from their head to their toes who wanted to “bomb the fuck outta ISIS,” but for the most part the average Trump supporter had made the decision to support him for concrete reasons that they could support when asked.

From the conversations I either overheard or took part in actively, several points stuck out from why Americans claimed to like Trump:

  • He was able to give them a sense of nationalistic pride, putting Americans at the forefront of all decisions.
  • His powerful personality and unfiltered approach to speaking made him “unapologetic” to groups like ISIS.
  • He was tough on areas like immigration, where other candidates weren’t. Many supporters felt that job loss and economic problems were linked to outsourcing or illegal immigration.
  • Supporters felt comfortable that he could negotiate better terms for the middle class, expand the job market, and respect the military and police.

9 AM

The rally began with a prayer that called for unity in our nation, a stronger direction, and a more hopeful future. We then recited the Pledge of Allegiance led by a 13-year-old Eagle Scout. A moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner followed.

Local politicians revved the audience up with pro-Trump statements with no definitive base. Language was used to get supporters to chant and shout in unison. The crowd broke out in a “USA! USA! USA!” chant, followed by “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!”

The gap between the speeches by local politicians and Trump’s eventual arrival was enormous. Music played, supporters danced in the stands, random chants broke out, and the media stand took pictures of the rally. Every time the music died down to play the next song, cell phones whipped out and directed themselves to the stage, anticipating Trump’s arrival. They soon were lowered back down as another song came on. The suspense was building and building.

9:30 AM

Prior to Trump’s arrival on stage, the song “Nessun Dorma” (from Turandot) as sung by Pavarotti played over the speakers. I was both intrigued and confused by the choice of music. The aria is very emotional and translates to “None Shall Sleep” from the original Italian. The final lyrics triumphantly proclaim “All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!” (“At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!). Trump certainly didn’t make a mistake in choosing this song. I’m not too sure how many people were able to understand it, though. It might be some kind of confidence booster before he exits on stage.

IMG_20160304_171554
Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

He entered, smiling and waving at everyone. The audience erupted in cheers. A sea of banners and chants welcomed him to the stage as he mouthed the words “thank you” to the audience. Someone loudly shouted “I love you!!!” to which Trump responded “I love you back.” The room exploded in another round of the “USA! USA! USA!” chant. Trump began waving his fist and shouting “USA! USA! USA!” with the audience, leaning over the podium to get a better look at the crowd.

Trump began:

“Thank you very much for being here, this is an amazing crowd. We have thousands of people outside trying to get in, the Fire Marshall was very nice to us, you’re stacked right into the corners. Does anybody want to give up their place to the people outside? [NO!] If there’s one person in this whole room, raise your hand. [NO!] Alright! We are in an amazing period of time. I started this journey on June 16th, from practically the time I began ‘til now, we’ve been in the number one position. [YEAH!]”

He then started to talk about how he stacked up against “little Marco” Rubio in the polls. Trump tended to repeat what he had said at other events, making comments about Mitt Romney, the media, and other members of the establishment. His comments solicited a loud “ONE OF US! ONE OF US!” chant from some of the young supporters.

Trump spoke about his own power to get things done. He lightly touched on some of the debate topics, but a lot of what he had mentioned was showmanship. He did make an effort to talk about the automotive industry in crisis, asking the crowd how many had worked for Ford and his efforts to help bring back manufacturing jobs to the US. He underlined how unions had failed to keep these jobs in the US, and how they needed to focus on their members and workers instead to ensure that Americans were put first.

Not too far into the speech, the first protester started yelling unintelligibly in the crowd. “Get him out of here,” smirked Trump. The crowd went wild, chanting “GET OUT OF HERE!” “USA! USA! USA!” and “HELL YEAH!” A short while after, a young man started protesting from the front of the crowd, wearing aviator sunglasses.

“He looks like an Elvis impersonator! Usually Elvis impersonators like me,” laughed Trump.

A few other supporters were protesting and were also rounded up. “Shame on you!” shouted a middle-aged woman from behind me. She spoke over to her friend next to her: “I can’t believe people waste their time like that. I just want to hear Donald. He always has to deal with so much. I’d be so much more upset if someone were doing that to me.”

Trump then began to talk simply about broad issues that always would receive a lot of crowd support. He mentioned the wall, which was followed by a “BUILD THE WALL!” chant from the crowd. Annihilating ISIS was another large crowd pleaser. He also mentioned how he was ashamed by how veterans and the military were treated. He touched on how big of a mistake and a waste Obamacare is.

He then reiterated the “small hands” joke that he had used at the GOP Debate in Detroit. “Those hands can hit a golf ball 285 yards!” Everyone in the audience supported Trump for the heat he had taken from fellow GOP candidates. He continued: “So I said to my people, ‘So what do I do? Just stand back, take it coming, and act presidential?’ I said nah, you know how many people I’d have in this room if I did that? I’d have about seven. And they would be mostly the protesters. And that’s the problem. Our country takes abuse from everybody and we don’t do anything about it.”

Another protester was escorted out and he made mention that the media liked to portray Trump and his supporters as rude to protesters. “One guy came into a rally swinging, he was very violent. The media doesn’t cover that.” Trump seemed to energize the public whenever he mentioned how the establishment, protesters, and media were against their movement.

He made a rousing ending and thanked supporters for coming out to the rally. After the event, supporters squeezed up against a gate between the audience and the podium. I was able to shake Mr. Trump’s hand. He gave me a warm smile and thanked me for my support,  then moved on.

201603042024653137

Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

11:30 AM

I returned back to the metal detector area and retrieved my confiscated water bottle from the trash. The police officer felt bad that I had to have it thrown away for the event. A young man had also had his coffee travel mug that had some family photos on it thrown away. He helped me search for my water bottle and we both finally found our items. The police were kind to us and mentioned how respectful everyone had been to them at the rally.

12:20 PM

Back home, I pondered about everything I saw. Here are my conclusions.

Power Play: The Authoritarian Savior

IMG_20160304_172127Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

The nationalistic elements in the Trump rally were extremely clear. I would venture to say that the tactics Trump uses more closely resemble those of Mussolini – facial expressions, powerful hand gestures, fearlessness to comment in an unfiltered manner. Trump’s bombast is likely the result of the cutthroat nature in Manhattan business deals and his insatiable desire for more. He had even mentioned that a man in his position was greedy and that he wanted to in turn be “greedy for the American people.”

Trump plays upon public unity, but not entirely in the same way as Hitler or Mussolini. Hitler and Mussolini tried explicitly to be a part of the collective. They came from modest roots and pushed their way to the top of the political continuum. Their rhetoric made them stand as workers next to their compatriots – this is the main reason that one calls Hitler’s movement National Socialist. This element is missing from Trump’s campaign. Trump instead tries to unify through nationalism, but is nowhere near admitting that he’s a worker. He always touts his status as a businessman. He sets himself apart from the collective and hierarchically places himself above the common citizen, though he empathizes with their strife.

This leads me to believe that his movement could be dubbed as the National Capitalist, or the National Oligarch.

Trump’s propaganda tactics are much more direct than what can be seen from the works of Goebbels’ “Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda” (Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda) which aimed to introduce ideology indirectly through films, radio shows, art exhibitions, and posters. Trump has taken an approach that is uncompromising, ripping apart his opponents and openly mocking them. In this way his personality reminds me a bit more of Stalin. His racial slurs and off-colour comments are straight out of the fascist handbook, though. That’s clear.

Trump speaks very simply and clearly. He doesn’t use elaborate language and doesn’t delve into topics into great depth. This tactic has been used across the board by people of all political backgrounds. His exact opposite in this election in this realm is Bernie Sanders. Sanders spends great amounts of time explaining the flaws of the system and touts an impressive vocabulary.

Trump feeds on emotions at the surface level, which in my view is his way of connecting with “common” citizens. The frightening thing is this works very effectively. Thanks to the way media has programmed us to listen to sound bites and the way social media has required an extreme oversimplification of our ideas, squeezing them into 140-character blurbs, Trump is easily able to bounce from topic to topic without the blink of an eye.

Trump is brilliant, and I say that without a single doubt in my mind. Though he has personified himself in a larger than life manner, he has worked the specifics of the way it comes across down to a science. He knows precisely what he wants to say, how he wants to say it, and how he wants to look while saying it.

It’s the exact kind of advertising power needed to make a sale. Far too many have jumped to the conclusion that he’s “out of his mind” far too quickly. The man is a performer and knows exactly how to win over others. He has spent years analyzing popular opinion. He’s rubbed shoulders with elites, US politicians, world leaders, bankers, and media producers.

The fact that his points resonate with so many Americans is no mistake. It’s a well engineered ideology that he is meticulously cultivating to win more and more support.

We can’t look away. No matter how hard we all try, we are drawn to him, whether we support him or not. I’ve seen friends who are staunch Sanders or Clinton supporters post more articles about Trump than their own candidate. It should make you take a step back and recognize that he has truly thought this through. He knows how to direct attention to himself. His personality is unique. His populist message is infectious. The reason it’s so infectious is that he has manipulated the public forum during debates to more personal attacks so that when the real issues come up, he is able to draw from the criticism and negative attention he receives and paint a broader picture with it. With the way he’s framed his campaign, it’s not just Donald J. Trump under attack, it’s the entire nation. This is why protectionism becomes important and why building the wall and getting rid of ISIS place so highly on the list of things to “solve.”

Trump enjoys being attacked, martyred by his opponents. The more the establishment bashes Trump, the more supporters he gains. Americans have always respected individuals who blaze their own trail as an individualistic powerhouse. His supporters, the representatives of the majority demographic, see a man unafraid to confront problems face-on, particularly when the problems are their own. Unlike other candidates, they see a man who embodies their version of the American Dream, a man being chastised for representing their side of the story. 

Claire-Marie Brisson

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Fear. The power behind the definition of this four-letter word has stopped even the most tenacious in their tracks. We fear the unknown, the lack of acceptance by our peers, any threat to the security of our daily lives, and most of all, we fear death.

We are very aware of how we are perceived, and an end result of that is that most people wish to be seen as a paradigm of social perfection, emulating either what is perceived to be ‘right’ or fashionable. Governments are equally faced with this fear of how they are perceived. To evade many issues and uprisings, the general public is fed with comfort food for the ears – vague statements that help to stall decisions and provide ephemeral placation. This fear has complicated government to a point where process has degraded into procedure and progress has become appeasement.

As was famously penned by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the opening line of his The Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Human nature hasn’t changed very much since. We are creatures that like to stratify and organize all parts of our lives while simultaneously climbing the social ladder, all the while in fear of defeat and criticism. Included in the organization of our world are all of the values and traditions that weave together to create our personal identity – our nationality, our religion or lack thereof, our sexual orientation, our political affiliations, our educational background, our job specialization, our likes and dislikes. Yet, though these aspects represent the fingerprints of our uniqueness within the collective, they are also areas that sometimes foster fear and conflict, particularly in two domains: 1) the fear of an attack on our personal identity and 2) the fear of the judgement or conflicts between others who do not share in the same identities. This is where we begin to place ourselves “in chains.”

It has become a trend to think that by simply passing legislation one can fix all of the world’s ills, almost as if we were prescribing a remedy for our fears. That unfortunately is not the case. The process that has been set into place to make governments function was intended to provide a catalyst for general responsibility. The process provided by government is only one means to an end. When we start to take into account the variety represented by individual rights, we start to realize the mammoth undertaking it would be to address each issue. These individual and social rights therefore can be interpreted as self-executing rights – ones that are not necessarily explicitly covered by federal law, but still hold validity.

One very important self-executing right has recently come into the spotlight in light of the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France – that of the freedom of expression. Never before have I seen such a vast array of responses from different news sources or personal connections in reaction to an incident. Some responses were filled with messages of solidarity and hope for the French people during the tragedy. Others had posted online that one ‘reaps what one sews’ and were ‘not surprised.’ Many reactions were in direct target to Islam, either for or against. Armchair activists that had only days before never heard of or read the publication began to chastise the authors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo for hateful publications. The hashtag #JesuisCharlie has become a worldwide mark of support. #JenesuispasCharlie has also appeared, as well as #JesuisAhmed – representing the fallen Muslim police officer.

There are several important points that can be taken away in wake of these despicable acts of terror committed, particularly in relation to the right to freedom of expression.

Firstly, if one takes a look at the history of Charlie Hebdo, one will see that this is not the first time that the publication had been involved in legal or social skirmishes due to its content. In 2006 for example, Charlie Hebdo was taken to court for its publication of several cartoons that related to Islam. France, along with many other countries, have laws that limit the mass publication of what can be defined as hateful speech. (One can refer to these laws for further reading and analysis: Loi du 29 juillet 1881 sur la liberté de la presse, article 24; La loi n° 90-615 du 13 juillet 1990 (Loi Gaysot); Code pénal – Article R624-3, link here).
The court’s holding found that the cartoons and publications were protected under the law, as they “mocked fundamentalists, not Islam or Muslims.” (Viscusi, Bloomberg Online, 2007). Therefore, it was their fundamental right to be able to publish their opinions.

This leads to the second point – what exactly can be identified as hateful? Does everyone agree? The difficulty with enforcing such laws deals with the fact that what is considered ‘hate’ is usually a relative concept. Some will agree, some will disagree. Furthermore, by denying certain ‘controversial’ groups their right to participate or to express themselves in the public forum is a surefire way to breed conditions under which a suppressed subject might force its way to the surface in more violent ways than writing or drawing. In grade school, it was common for the teacher to ask students to express their feelings to resolve issues, rather than bottling them up. The same goes for adults, too.

Let’s return to the idea of the organization of our world. Freedom of expression is liberating because it allows us to address our individual needs in a way that enables others to understand and respond to them, making our lives more stable and fulfilling. What becomes frustrating for some is when they encounter the product of another person’s expression – be it a cartoon, a film, a novel, or a political speech. When these creations are in diametric opposition to one’s personal values, the creation becomes offensive, frustrating, demeaning, and controversial. In many cases, some people are even afraid of facing anything that even remotely challenges or goes against their status quo.

Is there an easy solution to this situation? Absolutely not. Since the issue is so relative and is mainly based at the individual level rather than the collective, the best we can do is to take the advice of another eighteenth-century philosopher – that of Voltaire. He wisely articulated that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” We will never entirely agree with what other people will say or think. There is no law that can ever change or will ever change that. What will move us forward towards a more open forum of respect, responsibility, and free discussion is to always have an open mind, particularly to those who hold a differing viewpoint.

Face your fears.