It Was a Short Winter, Charlie Hebdo
When I was a child, my father used to keep copies of Charlie Hebdo hidden in the house, because he didn’t want my brother nor I to be exposed to the dirty cartoons the paper was known for. Two of the cartoonists also made cleaner cartoons for children-oriented media (Cabu for the kid’s show Récré A2 and Charb for Mon petit quotidien) so their styles were familiar to pretty much any French kid who grew up in the 90’s, not to mention any left-leaning baby boomer. When both of them were shot to death on January 7th, along with 10 other people working at Charlie Hebdo, almost everyone I know felt like they had a personal connection to the victims. What’s more, two days later, someone shot a policewoman dead in a southern suburb of Paris before he held the customers of a kosher supermarket in the 12th arrondissement hostage and killed 4 of them. I grew up in the 12th arrondissement, and I went to high school not even two blocks away from the supermarket where my best friend’s family used to shop every Friday for Sabbath. So to say this struck home sounds like a bad pun. By the end of the day, all of the perpetrators were dead, which amounted to exactly 20 people killed in three days.
Saying that the 72 hours between the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the liberation of the hostages felt surreal is an understatement. The whole country started to show support for a satirical paper that, two days prior, no one really cared about anymore unless it was to talk about how offensive they were. On a national as well as a personal level, French people were genuinely mourning. Social media became flooded with #jesuischarlie and the like, more people marched in the country than any other time since the end of World War 2, and the following issue of Charlie Hebdo sold 7 million copies (to give you an idea, they used to sell 60,000 on a good week.)
My Facebook feed was divided into two very distinct groups: the French side and the American side. Now, I’m not saying that my friends represent all of France or all of America, but among my social circles, there was a very obvious trend in each group: my French friends had the emotional response to show blind and unconditional support to the victims and the paper, while my American friends were posting critical pieces about how Charlie Hebdo was racist and it should be condemned. I had issues with both attitudes.
While I found the collective hysteria in France worrying because it allowed no room for any personal form of grief, let alone level-headed discussion, the utter lack of empathy demonstrated by American intellectuals felt braggy and insensitive. I recently stumbled upon an excellent Philosophy blog run by a French cartoonist named Janine who posted a piece on the kindness of words and the legitimacy of anger [Side note: I love how she explains why the anger of Black feminists is justified and productive.] You should absolutely check it out but if you don’t read French, she talks about the Sufi theory that words should pass three gates before one speaks them:
– are they true?
– are they necessary?
– are they kind?
The point that really resonated with me is: today’s society overvalues truth over kindness. What Janine wrote made me realize how it is at the core of everything that has happened for the past eleven days. Stephen Fry once said something that I will never forget:
“What counts more than talent, what counts more than energy —or concentration, or commitment, or anything else— is kindness. And the more in the world you encounter kindness, and cheerfulness —which is its kind of amiable uncle or aunt— the better the world always is. And all the big words: virtue, justice, truth, are dwarfed by the greatness of kindness.”
This may all sound really cheesy but in the wake of so much violence, I find solace in those words.
Back in 2008, when Charlie Hebdo was criticized for publishing caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, they responded with something along the lines of “If we can’t make fun of everything, we can’t make fun of anything, and freedom of speech means no one is safe from mockery.” After the recent attacks, this was rehashed ad nauseam by many comedians (including one of my icons, Tina Fey) but I disagree. I’m all for everyone being allowed to speak freely and without fear of being savagely murdered —I can’t believe this isn’t even me being hyperbolic— but I don’t think that it absolves anyone from acting responsibly. People have repeated over and over “Charlie Hebdo made fun of EVERY religion so it’s not so much about Islam as it is about the dogma of religion.” I get the point but something that that statement seems to overlook is that, as convenient as it is to place all religions on the same level, Christians in France are not the victims of systemic oppression in the way that Muslims are, nor acts of violence in the way Jews are. Perpetuating a stereotype about Christianity in France just doesn’t have the same negative consequences on a socio-cultural level as perpetuating a stereotype about Islam, plain and simple. We can debate about what those consequences are and who is most responsible for them until the cows come home but when you repeatedly dismiss the criticism sent your way by an oppressed culture and continue to deliberately offend them, you are giving ammunition to the oppressor to make broad and dangerous generalizations —not to mention, adding fuel to the tensions in the Muslim world. And this is a rational point that anyone in France who has tried to put across recently has been faced with a deluge of insults.
That being said, trying to tell people how to feel about a traumatizing event is showing just as little kindness. I’ve read somewhere that the Charlie Hebdo team represented the type of tactless uncle who makes dirty jokes at the dinner table and I relate to that. In the 70’s, those cartoonists were using vulgarity to make fun of the bigoted stuck-up culture France was still living in. There was a sense of self-awareness and irreverence that my parents have tried to cultivate in my siblings and me, and in that respect, Charlie Hebdo feels like part of the family. But, in the way that some of my parents’ friends have been stuck in May 68 for quite a while, Cabu, Charb and the rest of the team became quite a sleazy bunch of white guys, and they let the world move on without them. And as much as you argue with your uncles at family gatherings, as embarrassed as their idiotic remarks make you, you’re none the less sad when they die and you still honor their memory. I can have a rational discourse about how fucking racist my uncles have become, but please don’t come to the funeral to point your finger in my face and say “Your feelings are wrong, your uncle was a dick” because this makes you one yourself.
I won’t get into too much details about my own political interpretations of the aftermath of the tragedy, others have phrased it much better than I ever could (see links below,) but here are a few questions I’ve been asking myself:
1. does freedom of speech really trump freedom of thought?
2. shouldn’t mainstream media take some responsibility for the fear-inducing representations of Islam that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons perpetuated?
3. why focus on security measures instead of educating underprivileged areas —like the ones from where the killers came?
I’m hopeful France, as a country, will soon be able to discuss all that, but I understand why it needs to lick its wounds.
I recently went on a date where we discussed three things that we found attractive in someone, and I said: “Kindness, intelligence, humor.” I wish that had been the order in which everyone had dealt with the situation.