As governments all over the world were lighting their architectural landmarks in black, yellow, and red in a temporary display of supra-national affiliation and social media users were applying the same wash to their profile photos, a different kind of response was also coalescing.
Sometimes accompanied by the image of frites giving the finger, “Je suis sick of this shit” provided a wry alternative to the effusive proclamations of honorary and self-appointed Belgian-ness afforded by the more familiar “Je suis Brussels.” In a recent essay, Pamela Druckerman, an American ex-pat in Paris, cast her vote for this version of solidarity . For her, this “Je suis” captures the exasperated sadness that attends the too-familiar rituals of fear, hand-wringing, and gradual return to normal following terrorist attacks in Europe.
I want to offer a different endorsement, on the grounds that this “Je suis” points to a more ethically durable, and substantive – stay with me here – response to such atrocities than the tamer, sweeter “Je suis”es that preceded them.
Following the 2015 massacre of staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and concomitant spate of attacks, supporters worldwide renamed themselves, proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” at protests, on placards, in cartoons, and across social media. Subsequently, the form of the”Je suis” declaration would be recycled many times over, with every new atrocity.
A double entendre that could mean either “I am” or “I follow” (though my hunch is that the preferred meaning is the former, and the one more likely to be understood by the non-Francophone world), “Je suis” is surely a compelling acknowledgment of one’s capacity to be changed, elementally, by the encounter with violence. “I am” is a way of identifying with the victims; “I follow,” a more active verb, professes a willingness to reorient oneself toward them.
Either way, however, I want to suggest that “Je suis Charlie” model presents a too-narrow way of responding to these events.
My concern is not so much that “Je suis” loses something in the endless repetition, though there is good reason to be wary of anything that is too readily hashtagified, condensation indicating that whatever thing is more brand than substance. Indeed, more than one person has tried to trademark it.
Rather, it seems to me that the original “Je suis” makes a specious claim to victimization and overstates the “Je suis”-er’s capacity to ameliorate the suffering of those who were directly victimized.
After all, relatively few people worldwide actually are Charlie, or Paris, or Beirut, or Brussels. We might increasingly have the sense that we have the potential to become any of those entities, that we are vulnerable, perhaps even likely to encounter violence on that scale. But to claim rhetorical authority on those grounds risks displacing attention off the actual Charlie, Paris, Beirut, Brussels and onto the person making the proclamation and evincing anxiety they might some day be on the receiving end of a “Je suis” promise.
Relatedly, to claim an shared identity based on a sympathetic understanding of tragedy is ethically shallow, but also profoundly, and problematically, contingent. Roughly a year after the attacks on its offices, the editors of Charlie Hebdo encountered the limit of “Je suis Charlie” solidarity in the form of Alan Kurdi. Making an astute but gauchely provocative observation about the fickleness of European sympathy for migrants, Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon envisioning an adult Alan Kurdi as a “groper” terrorizing women, a drawing that included an inset of the photo of the dead boy on a Turkish beach. The cartoon provoked an instantaneous, and almost uniformly hostile, reaction, as people all over the world took to social media to question whether they wanted to “suis Charlie” after all. This revealed that the loyalty elicited by the attacks was conditional, and the pledge to be or to follow only in force until another, more sympathetic victim came along.
On the other hand, “Je suis sick of this shit” represents a more ingenuous and durable claim. “Sick of this shit” clarifies the translation of “suis,” so that the only logical meaning is “I am.” Without the semantic ambiguity that could also imply “I follow,” this “Je suis” is meaningfully passive, and underscores the relative helplessness of the speaker to remedy the situation of the victims. It marks the simple fact of existence, and co-existence with them, as well as with the threat of another attack. Declining to promise action, it names an affective orientation and, in the process, accurately marks the limits of of the individual’s agency.
To greater or lesser degrees, anyone aware of the attacks that inspire us to “Je suis” could plausibly be “sick of this shit.” This identity is not tied to a particular place, not predicated on someone else’s suffering, and does not lay claim to victimhood. Largely unfettered from national affiliation, it is a cosmopolitan refusal of both defeat and jingoism. Inclusive without being presumptuous, it wobbles-as many of us do in the aftermath of such attacks-between capitulation and resistance.