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Je ne suis pas Charlie

8 January 2015

When the news of the murderous attack on the staff of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo broke it was shocking and horrifying.

Charlie Hebdo cartoon portraying black Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira as a monkey

Charlie Hebdo cartoon portraying black Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira as a monkey

But then I noticed something. The TV news channels were broadcasting sound bites from people expressing their reactions to the killings, and nearly all of them spoke of it as an attack on freedom of speech. It became a pattern. What mattered to most of the commentators was not that people had died in the attack. The important thing for everyone was not people, but an abstract idea, the idea of “freedom of speech”.

Then they showed pictures of people protesting against the murders, holding up plackards saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). And the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie went viral on Twitter. And I began to wonder about Charlie Hebdo, what it was, and what it stood for.

And then I saw this tweet:

I can’t say “Je Suis Charlie” because as a brown muslim immigrant woman it was my identity that was targeted in their cartoons.

If that is true, then those who are saying “Je suis Charlie” are saying that they think racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and sexism are cool. And a look at some of the tweets with the #JeSuisCharlie” hashtag confirms that impression.

ChalieI don’t think that racism, sexism and xenophobia are a justification for murder. I hope the killers are caught, put on trial and punished for the murders. But neither do I think that anger at the murders is a justification for the orgy of justification for racism, sexism and xenophobia going on under the “Je suis Charlie” label.

It is said the killers were “Muslim fundamentalists”, and that this shows the evil of religion in general and fundamentalism in particular.

There is a very good article it here: Charlie Hebdo and fundamentalism – DUNCAN REYBURN, and it is well worth reading. It confirms my belief that fundamentalism is something that arises out of modernity, and is a modernist reaction to modernity. Islamic fundamenalism is a modernist adaptation of Islam to the modern world, and attempt by Muslims to face modernity in its own terms. Christian fundamentalism does much the same thing.

But I would say that the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings shows that there is a clash of two funamentalisms. There is Islamic fundamentalism, and also a fundamentalism of “freedom of speech”. The almost universal response of seeing the killings as an attack on freedom of speech betrays the same attitude as that of the killers. It is an ideological clash, a clash of two religions, two fundamentalisms.

Our Constitution makes provision for Freedom of Expression as follows:

Freedom of expression
16. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes –

(a) freedom of the press and other media;
(b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
(c) freedom of artistic creativity; and
(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

(2) The right in subsection (1) does not extend to –

(a) propaganda for war;
(b) incitement of imminent violence; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

But the Freedom of Speech Fundamentalists would like to deny the limitations, and the “Je suis Charlie” fundamentalists would especially like to deny the provisions of Section 16(2)(c).

What makes this more noticable is the huge outpouring of white male indignation in this instance, but the response to other killings and violence is muted. Are these killings any worse than those of US Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton, or British Prime Ministers Cameron and Blair over the last 15-20 years?


23 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 January 2015 11:09 pm

    I must say I had to consider carefully whether I could say “Je suis Charlie” before posting and decided that I am – but I think there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of what Charlie was about. They took the “freedom of speech” right not in order to incite hatred but to expose what they see as the flaws in attitudes inherent in any religion.
    France’s “constitution” is – quite deliberately – secular. Almost to the extent that it is anti-religious.
    Freedom of speech allows for people to be targeted – but the sentiment is important. If everyone is targeted equally, this is true freedom. If a particular group is singled out, then not. Charlie was aware that it would cause offence. Fair enough – that is the price of true freedom of speech and I will defend it to my core. “I may not like what you say but I will defend absolutely your right to say it.”
    The fact that anything causes offence is not an issue – it is the nature of human beings to be offended and that is our right. But it is also our right to hold and to defend differing opinions. I happen not to like the way that Chris Rock talks about “black people” – I find it offensive… He is “talking about me” in that sense that I am who he’s talking about… but honestly I get more offended by his cussing than by his sentiment. I know it doesn’t actually apply to me and that I can argue otherwise.
    Targeting “my identity” is not the same as targeting me. It is also useful – I hold a mirror to myself and say “hmm… this might be how some people see me before I open my mouth…”. It’s a learning experience but – very importantly – I can choose not to be offended by it. I can also choose not to be offended by misogyny or overt racism. The point missed here is about “hatred”. Charlie was not advocating hatred – just mischief.

    • 10 January 2015 1:54 pm

      Thanks very much for commenting, Nomtha. I think these are issues we need to talk more about, and hear as many different sides as possible.

    • Valia permalink
      11 January 2015 10:25 pm

      nomthag I find your arguments very good, and I totally agree with you:

      They took the “freedom of speech” right not in order to incite hatred but to expose what they see as the flaws in attitudes inherent in any religion.

      As French myself, let me tell you, no French person, whatever their religion or background, is offended by what Charlie publishes. Some may not like their utterly provocative style, and I am not a fan either I must admit, but: they parody the news, the political wars, the system, the power games, etc. this is what they do, and the French know that, so everyone accepts it, because it is part of our culture. If it was not, this paper would not even exist, or would be banned by the authorities. They caricature the main actors and events of the international and national scenes, they make a sort of summary of what’s going on, they don’t say more they don’t say less, they just say it their own way. They do not advocate anything. And if they condemn anything anytime, it’s fair enough they do it because they have the right to do it. So I cannot agree more with what you wrote:

      “I may not like what you say but I will defend absolutely your right to say it.”

  2. misseagle permalink
    9 January 2015 12:39 am

    Thank you Steve for your post. It has given me courage to post my own views on Facebook which I copy below. On Facebook, I can be found as Brigid O’Carroll Walsh. I am also interested in your comments, Steve, about modernity and fundamentalism and think that this is an idea well worth exploring. Anyway, thank you and here is what I said on Facebook:

    Dear Facebookies, All the stuff I am reading about the protests of the dreadful killings in France seems to me to leave so much unsaid. My own view, I think, is a minority view and I did not want to air it because I fear a thoughtless howling down. However, this post by my oldest internet friend, Steve Hayes, has given me courage.

    First of all, let me declare my hand. I am a Quaker and Quakers have a history of pacifism across more than 400 years. Not only do Quakers refuse to serve in wars, Quakers look for ways to build peace. My own view is that I wish we put as much energy and trust and resources into building peace as we do into building standing armies and budgeting for all manner of warring devices from submarines to the latest gadgets that fire bullets and detonate stuff.

    Twelve people have died in France – some of whom had nothing to do with the magazine at the centre of the killings. Twelve lives cut down and we do not know how many living will be impacted adversely by these deaths for the rest of their born days. This is serious stuff. This is not satirical.

    France is also a secular country more so than just about any country in Europe or with European origins. It is arguably more secular than Russia is these days. It has been so since the French revolution. I point this out because this could be a factor in targetting those who take their religion seriously, even aside from the brand of fundamentalism that has orchestrated these killings.

    So behind these deaths can we ask whether Charlie Hebdo was a troublemaker or a peacemaker? Was it insolent in the face of threats to human life? If the answer to these questions is yes – then was this really smart, clever, intelligent? Charlie Hebdo had been targetted before. There are the lessons of Denmark too.

    This episode concerns more than free speech. It concerns the lives of many people alive and dead. Can we somehow reflect on all the matters surrounding these deaths – not only the free speech issue. Steve Hayes points to fundamentalism – not only in Islam but in Christianity too – as a response to modernity. I am assuming from Steve’s comments that he speaks of a sort of “putting up the shutters” and not letting the world in. People are free to put up the shutters – but they are not free to harrass others nor to take the lives of others.

    When the immediate grief subsides I hope we can talk about these things. I hope we can focus on becoming peace-building societies. I hope we can involve all media, all forms of communicating with others in art, technology, and language. I think of the friends and families of the dead and, in the Quaker way, I hold them in The Light.

    • 10 January 2015 1:56 pm

      Thanks for that. I’ve responded by e-mail as well, and I think there are several issues here we need to be talking about more.

  3. virginie permalink
    9 January 2015 10:49 pm

    Of course you are free to despise the style of Charlie Hebdo, but this blog is making claims that brings insult to injury!

    Your argument is completely flawed and the two drawings you have selected are perfect illustrations of your misreading.

    Cartoons are comments to things happening in society. If you don’t have the context, you are likely to miss the message, and that is exactly what you do.

    It is typical that the world media (both conventional and social and the blogs in between) focus on cartoons and cartoonists and for example do not mention Oncle Bernard (pen name Bernard Maris) an economist who publishes weekly a column on economic issues and psychiatrist / psycho-analist Elsa Cayat who had a column on psy issues (parenthood, sexuality etc,…). They might be less emblematic than the cartoonists, for many readers they were as important providing different and content rich comments on current affairs.

    As your blog is in English and many people abroad (= outside France) that might want to find out about Charlie Hebdo and do not read French could read it I would like to provide a bit of context for these two cartoons.

    For full disclosure I’d like to add that I live in the Netherlands (remember Theo van Gogh?) but I was born and grew up in France and I visit my family there regularly and follow the media, and that I have a black parent and a white parent (just to be as transparent as possible about the race dimension that concerns this blog).

    Take the first cartoon:
    It is a critique of an incident in which a political representative of the Front National (the extreme right party) have compared the minister to a monkey, and Marine Le Pen the leader of the FN had said it was an incident and has expelled that politician. What the cartoon does, is pointing out that this representative was not an exception but that this type of monkey jokes are common in the party.
    The tricolor flame in the lower left corner is the logo of the FN.
    The text above the drawing is de correction of the name under which the FN operates.
    Rassemblement bleu marine (= azure rally)
    Azure it is the french colour (and the first colour of the flag)
    The colour azure is called literally “marine blue”: in French (marine means navy)
    and Marine is the first name of Marine Le Pen who succeeded to her father Jean Marie Le Pen at the head of the movement. She uses her first name to stress the differences with her father – taking her distance with the old classic extreme right, the OAS during the Algerian war, and antisemitism. Hence Rassemblement bleu marine that has been used as party name for the 2012 elections.
    Here Charb (teh cartoonist) replaces it with Rassemblement bleu raciste (racist blue rally) to reveal the true colour of the party.

    (by the way: why did you call Christiane Taubira black minister of justice ? this is no such function in the French Republic, she is just the plain minister of Justice Barack Obama is not “black president of the US “ either).

    Then the second cartoon
    It is a critique of the power relations in surrogacy. It is forbidden in France but some couples hire a woman abroad (often poorer woman in India or in the US) and then take the adopted child back to France. The political debate was at the time that regularization of the babies was possible for heterosexual couples but not for homosexual couples. The cartoon portrays the unequal power relations between a couple of homosexual and a surrogate mother that “works” for them.
    The text reads in English.
    “Surrogacy, that is 2 parents [referring to the legal requirement of a heterosexual couple]
    …. and a slave” [referring to the social misery in which someone must be to rent her womb for little money to strangers]. So here is another racism that is exposed, that of not caring for the misery of women that enter such a deal “by choice” and that are largely invisible in the success stories of surrogacy.
    Whatever you think about surrogacy or about homosexual parenting, the point is to direct the attention to the unequal relations between the couple buying a baby and the surrogate mother.

    Moreover picking two cartoons, and not looking further at the collection is just manipulation. You don’t need to read the newspaper for decades to see that virtually any group could make such a selection: women, machos, homosexuals, catholics, atheists, political parties, trade unions, US, Israel, China, Russia…whoever not to forget themselves (sometime personally) and by far the most targeted personage le beauf short for brother in law – so-called the average Frenchman portrayed as white misogynist and racist male. In other words self-mockery of course! And that is the more important point, satire is not about Others, it is about us (in all diversity).

    I am not claiming that racism is no problem in France (and actually I am much in fear of a surge of polarization and escalation of racist incidents in the country).
    But saying that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were foremost racist and targeting black people (or muslims or immigrants) is just plain historical falsification. But they did expose racism in its many guises in French society.

    The point is that – irrespective of how shocked you may be by some of the bluntness and the coarseness of the drawings — the right to use humor to question “la connerie humaine” (human stupidity) in all its expressions is at stake. Their purpose is to shock and make you think. And the essential issue is that it is about self-introspection.

    But the core of the problem seems to be that more and more people seem unable to understand what the French called “le second degré” (how to translate: second level of interpretation?) and take everything literally without considering the context to which it refers, or even considering they might miss some elements to fully understand the message, and THAT I would call fundamentalism.

    it is true that due to the form, some people may feel disrespected and insulted by such a cartoon, instead of feeling defended, and there are FN people that may feel supported by such a cartoon (although they are not likely to read this anarchist leftist newspaper in the first place) instead of being criticized and ridiculed, and I could not agree more that the makers of such drawings should think about these ambiguities. But in the two cases you selected here, there is no such ambiguity for people living in the country at the time, providing you are aware of the most mediatized current affairs. (but then again, if you don’t follow the news, you are not likely to read a satirical newspaper).

    By circulating the cartoons without explanation, you just change their meaning, and you are the one using them to propagate a dehumanizing caricature of black people. But it does not change the fact that there were drawn just for the reverse purpose i.e. to expose racist attitudes among the French. And so they were understood by their readership.

    • 10 January 2015 8:53 am

      Thank you very much for that.

      Yes, I think that things do need to be seen in their cultural context, and cartoons especially rely a great deal on the cultural context, and also, for people who do not regularly read the magazine, or the language in which it was written, the cartoons are the most accessible feature, and also the most easily misinterpreted by people in other cultures.

      There is also, however, another level, and that is the way that the reader interprets it. My concern in this post was not so much with people in France, about whom I know litte, but rather with people in the Anglophone West, who also know little about France and French culture and French publications, but it was through their mediation and media that we learned of these events, and it was through their filters that we saw them, and that most English-speaking people responded to them. My post was mainly about their filters and spin.

    • 10 January 2015 10:46 am

      Virginie thank you so much for this. Katerina

    • Valia permalink
      11 January 2015 10:32 pm

      Virginie,thank you. I am French and I believe you have extremely well explained it all. Hope everyone can read your post, for a better understanding. I am so outraged by reactions I find on the web.

  4. Doug hynd permalink
    10 January 2015 12:23 pm

    worth noting some commentaries that I have found helpful; – this article develops an argument about the emergence of the sacred

  5. Valia permalink
    11 January 2015 10:08 pm

    If you can so boldly state that “those who are saying “Je suis Charlie” are saying that they think racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and sexism are cool”, I regret to tell you that you have totally mis-understood what Charlie is about.

    Freedom of expression is one thing, but parody and derision are another, and the purpose of parody and derision obviously escapes you.

    It is really sad to read what you wrote. Because it means that people like you are narrow-minded and have no capacity to make the difference between real dangerous people and people who just parody the terrible facts of life.

    • 12 January 2015 3:10 am

      I suppose that one thing the Charlie Hebdo affair has taught me is that I have little hope of understanding French culture. There is all this talk of “Freedom of Expression” and then there is this Rapper faces jail for song dissing France | World news | The Guardian:

      One of France’s most popular rappers will appear in court today charged with offending public decency with a song in which he referred to France as a “slut” and vowed to “piss” on Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. Monsieur R, whose real name is Richard Makela, could face three years in prison or a €75,000 (�51,000) fine after an MP from the ruling UMP party launched legal action against him over his album Politikment Incorrekt.

  6. 17 January 2015 10:57 am

    Well, I have been told that I have totally misunderstood what Charlie Hebdo is all about. And it is true that I don’t “get” French culture. But I think this article puts a finder on the ambivalence I feel about this: Charlie Hebdo cartoons are bigoted.

    I don’t “get” French culture, but is French culture really something that I want to “get”?

    The Charlie Hebdo affair has opened up a new debate about cultural differences, and shows us, as I said in another post, that knowing each other better will not necessarily make us love one another more. Before the internet, we may have been more ignorant of each other’s cultures, but maybe it was better so; where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.

  7. 19 January 2015 1:00 am

    Thanks for your comment. I think like you and, indeed, I think that the West with the story of Charlie Hebdo has shown that it is deeply atheist (no rights to God and religious symbols can be freely muddy). Here is my translation into Italian in my facebook:

  8. Michael permalink
    23 January 2015 2:38 pm

    You are absolutely right when you say that the murders were a manifestation a conflict between two fundamentally different ideologies.

    The age of enlightenment taught us that rational thought, sharing of ideas, transparency, the freedom to express opinions, to criticise and to satirise, made for a better society than any of the converses. Better in every sense – more prosperous, more educated, less fearful, more healthy, more just, more fair, etc.

    There are those that say that good and bad are entirely relative – one opinion is just as valid as another. But philosophical arguments apart, I think that sensible definitions of good and bad must ultimately be rooted in human suffering versus well-being.

    I would hold that mainstream Islam holds many doctrines that are, by this kind of definition, BAD ideas, and that, likewise, freedom of speech is a GOOD idea. It’s not a clash of equally valuable ideologies, it’s a clash of bad ideas versus good ideas.

    Je suis Charlie.


  2. Black lives matter? | Khanya
  3. Freedom of Expression: the new fundamentalism | Khanya
  4. Freedom of Expression: lip-service to a Western idol | Notes from underground
  5. Charlie Hebdo, polarisation, Quakers, Orthodox | Notes from underground
  6. ΟΙ ΠΟΛΕΜΟΙ ΤΩΝ ΚΑΦΡΩΝ. (Charlie Hebdo) | I thought so
  7. The irrational intolerant tolerance of our age | Khanya
  8. Some interesting things elsewere (Jan 2015) | Brambonius' blog in english

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