Musings on Contemporary Waffle

Je suis Charlie, mais …

Charlie Hebdo Web siteThe murder of the editorial and creative staff of Charlie Hebdo is an almost inconceivably horrible crime. Charlie Hebdo stood undoubtedly for freedom of expression, to take to task everyone and anyone who was important or who only aspired to importance. The satirical magazine exercised that freedom to lambaste the self-important on a weekly basis — which is what “hebdo” means in French — and no target was sacred enough to be spared ridicule of some kind.

I’ve read Charlie Hebdo on many occasions and recognized that, despite the quality of its creative spirit, it might be considered by many an acquired taste, as is probably clear from a subscriber base of a mere 30,000.

I know also that now is not the time to emphasize Charlie Hebdo’s style of satire, and that the thing under attack by those responsible for murdering the 12 people who were in and around the offices of the satirical weekly is our freedom to express ourselves however we want.

I know that. I also know that “giving in” to extremism is wrong. And so it is correct for Charlie Hebdo to continue publishing, apparently with a print run of 1M copies for the magazine’s next issue, as a commemoration of the people who died and as a show of defiance against those who attacked all of us when they attacked “Charlie”.

But forgive me, please; I am uneasy about defending Charlie Hebdo’s content completely and unequivocally, though certainly not its right to publish it.

Effective satire incorporates a point of view, otherwise it is just parody. But a point of view, by definition, assumes a bias, makes a statement. Some topics, however — in certain contexts — are simply not satirizable successfully regardless of how much compassion and insight we may believe we are expressing. When this happens, the subtext becomes our own insecurities and misconceptions.

For instance, one would be hard-pressed to find published satire about the Roma in Slovakia. It is simply not a problem conducive to laughter, since the Roma are a very visible and tragic problem there, something recognized by most people regardless of their sympathies towards or against this ethnic group, and therefore one that is little served by inflammatory public ridicule. It would be like satirizing the very essence of the tragedy of poverty or alcoholism or of societal dysfunction.

I am not saying that the Muslims of France or of Europe in general are in the same category of helpless outcasts as the Roma of Slovakia, but they are a recognizable, vulnerable, and misunderstood segment of the same society within which Charlie Hebdo functions. Making fun of their extremist factions who nevertheless pray to the same god as the mainstream Muslims in France do, reveals a certain undertone of callousness that is doubtless felt strongly also by those who are not radicalized in any way.

After watching hours of coverage on France24, BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera, I finally saw the inevitable report (on France24) that included an opinion by a mainstream French Muslim leader that Charlie Hebdo was deeply offensive not only to “jihadists” but also to ordinary Muslims in France. But the terrorist act was nonetheless condemned unequivocally.

No one calls anyone a “welsher” today, or says that we’ll go “dutch”, phrases that epitomized now faded nationalist stereotypes. Although skewering the Pope has a long tradition in Catholic societies and will not raise anyone’s temper anymore, Catholics are not a “problem” in French society. But Charlie Hebdo’s stance on Muslims showed an “us-and-them” attitude that I believe tends to emphasize the misunderstanding of the difficulties faced by the “others”, “les etrangers”, of French society.

Very few publications outside of France have ever reproduced the controversial cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. These publications may not stand any less for freedom of expression but may, perhaps, have recognized that some humour, when taken within a greater context than just the bare “right” to “express” oneself and be controversial, may also express something subconscious that may nevertheless be legitimately evident as intolerance and misunderstanding on our own part in some way.

None of this examination of Charlie Hebdo’s humour justifies one iota the decision taken by murderers to assassinate the creative team of Charlie Hebdo; not for one second.

One simply feels deeply and agonizingly the loss of those 12 souls, and wishes they had made themselves less vulnerable to the perpetrators who lived so close by and who hated so much for a reason that needs to be better understood, so that another horrible act of this kind can be prevented from ever happening again.

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