The many rallies in Paris and elsewhere yesterday provide an intriguing example of the malleability of unity as a symbol. The crowd in Paris, according to reports, was both enormous and diverse, including a range of foreign dignitaries and political leaders. In addition to various European leaders from Russia, Germany, and Britain alongside the President of France, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas both participated. The Guardian described the Paris march,
This was a nationwide outpouring of grief, solidarity and defiance. Parisiens of all ages, religions and nationalities turned out en masse not only to show their respect for the victims but their support for the values of the Republic: “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Of course, like the various commentaries on the events in Paris and the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag over the past week, the marchers had various reasons for participating. While it is certainly significant that Israeli and Palestinian leaders both marched (though not beside each other in the photos that I saw), it does not mean that their presence and their statements condemning the attacks of last week reflect unanimity on the march or the broader events. Similarly, the characterizations of the crowds suggest that some would agree with Rupert Murdoch’s tweet that Muslims should be held responsible for such attacks until they eliminate jihadists while other participants would agree with the plethora of counter tweets. Would some support greater internet surveillance, as some leaders meeting in Paris have reportedly proposed, and even “enhanced interrogation techniques” to fight terrorists? Would others in the march disagree, seeing surveillance as undermining freedom of expression and connecting the torture and mistreatment of terror suspects and enemy combatants to increased dangers (as some have linked image of abuse at Abu Ghraib to the radicalization of at least one attacker)? Probably yes to both questions.
So what is this unity that the march demonstrates? Perhaps the unity arises from simply an emotional unity of dismay, grief, and defiance at the attacks. That notion of unity, though, does so much more. Like social movements generally, the rhetoric of unity creates a notion of community, an imagined community (to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase), that overwrites the diverse opinions and interests of the participants. Politically, rallies like we witnessed yesterday can become a malleable symbol that leaders use to legitimize the policies that they want to implement. They rhetorically give the unity a specific meaning and move forward on that basis, whatever the people who participated had in mind when they marched. Of course, other leaders, and even individuals speaking out, can offer counter-narratives of what that unity meant for participants and means for the future of the community. What meaning becomes dominant, then, has much more to do with who can use public discourse most effectively than the meanings that participants had when they came to the rally.
The tensions between the rhetoric of unity, the diversity of participants, and the meanings generated afterwards are not unique to public demonstrations like this. The language of nationalism also operates in a similar manner, much as Anderson suggested three decades ago. Everyone who celebrates their national pride and ascribes to the national values does not understand the nation or those values in the same fashion. Even historic phrases like “liberté, égalité, fraternité” allow for a range of interpretations and policy prescriptions depending on the specific ideological and partisan position of the person espousing them. While the unity is only rhetorical, it has significant potential for whomever can steer that rhetoric.