I lived the entire upheaval provoked by the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in an echo, heard faintly from an Asian subcontinent engrossed in its own affairs, which are not unrelated to European questions. For in the big scheme of things the questions that are asked, around what type of state, democracy and economic system the countries of the subcontinent should have, are reminiscent of Europe’s current painstaking re-evaluation of values.
A very intense interview schedule and fluctuating internet availability did not leave me much space to write and express opinions in the heat of the moment otherwise than through shares, likes and retweets, but I can say I found a benefit in that process, since I was invited to read in quite a lot of detail the various positions espoused by global pundits and to form an opinion that took account of many of the ideas shared on social media those days.
Now, that I am back into a slower rhythm, I can start from here: my initial reaction, which stays with me to this day was and is “Je suis Charlie!”. For who, at least once in their life, did not feel like sticking their tongue out in the face of too much serious and righteousness? Who, in a fit of frustration, did not feel like kicking in the shin a too annoying preacher of the establishment, or did not feel like drawing on them a ridiculous moustache and long ears and whatever other appendage in order to ridicule any position that, in its extremism, risks erasing another, through the obliterating totalitarianism of self-righteousness and so called respect?
No one should die, be removed, erased, thrown into oblivion because they dared express an opinion that underlined the ridicule not of the ideas that were represented, but of what those purporting to support those ideas made of them. While watching some of the Charlie Hebdo caricatures that were deemed controversial, they all struck me through the fun they were poking at those Phariseans of all religions and creeds, and not at the ideas themselves. In this perspective, I can understand why the outcry, because there is no louder crier than the one exposed in the extremism and unreasonable assumptions of their beliefs. Some of you might remember that Umberto Eco built an entire novel around this idea: “The name of the rose” is all about how an over zealous monk killed and maimed in the effort of hiding an ancient manuscript that was praising the virtues of laughter. Why did he do that? Because he could not conceive laughter in the garden of God. Laughter would have discredited divinity. Eco’s characters might not have been real and the manuscript might have never have existed, but the temptation to silence doubt and questioning has always existed, especially when manifested through laughter and ridicule.
But passons, as the French would say it, and let us embrace, as some of the Anglo-Saxon and other cultures did, that reading humour and satire at the “second degree”, i.e. between the lines and beyond appearances and into context is a cultural specialty that is French and not up everyone’s intellectual sleeve. Such people tended to talk about tolerance and being considerate with other’s opinions and hence against publishing such caricatures. Tolerance towards and consideration of what exactly? Of “If you annoy me with your opinions I will kill you because I get to define what offends me or not”? That to me sounds more like institutionalised fear, and worse, an abdication of critical spirit in the name of cultural relativism; worse even, it reeks of indifference insofar as it lets the idea that eradicating another is an acceptable outcome, “if they looked for it”, or, if we replace the term with one closer to an economic logic, “if they did not have what it takes to survive”.
Another type of argument that was put forward in the debate, and one that touched me deeply as it came from a community with which I identify, that of analysts and researchers and intellectuals, was to move somewhat away from whether the caricatures had their place to be or not and point out the “hypocrisy of Western protests for free expression” reminding one the long history of European oppression of free speech, coupled with the unspeakable violence and suppression brought by colonialism around the world. The essays written were powerful, well argued, and they confused me. What was I supposed to take from them? That because of Europe’s bloody history of censorship and persecution of free speech, for which thousands have died, including many of the writers and philosophers quoted in these essays, we should not protest it now? Just because everyone has their part of darkness with which they must struggle everyday, should we not uphold what we deem to be the features of our humanity and a more just society? Frankly, the binary logic exhibited in most of these articles, of the type “Europe has suffered an attack on free speech but because of its own dark history of attack on free speech it should shut up” pointed out to me one of the big problems highlighted by the polarisation produced by the Charlie Hebdo events: most logics stop at it, stop short of a proposal going beyond binary logic and polarisation. Most arguments of this kind sound like well crafted graduate papers, in which the brilliant student has learnt to present the arguments and counterarguments that their teacher has told them about, and they show their erudition by giving obscure quotes and examples illustrating their points, but they are so engrossed in this vain activity that they forget the way forward. Their texts remain those of students, epigones.
Related to that, another problem: in my view, the reason why so many people felt sympathy and identified with Charlie Hebdo, despite the fact that a majority of people did not buy or even found an interest in its drawings was that in our societies we rely on publications such as Charlie Hebdo to carry the part of irreverence built-in the exercise of free speech, while we are busy submitting to a system that tries to quell such liberties. I would even venture as far as saying that the only way we accept doing this, is knowing that amongst us there are those who have not given up, who continue to battle. The problem is when a few must carry the banner that a majority has folded at the back of their conscience – sometimes they pay for this with their life. And then we receive a wake up call – not that everyone must now draw caricatures of the establishment, but must definitely relentlessly question it in order to improve on it. If not, we’ll pay with our freedoms. We already are.
And thus I come to my last point. In the flurry of articles read, there was one only, that I came across (there might be more) which seemed to me to strike an important note. It reminded its readers that the roots and causes of what happened had less with religious radicalisation and profanity and more with the inequalities and social injustices with which the capitalist system is rife. And that concerns all of us, not just the French. But tackling the system is so complicated that it is easier to concentrate on things like religion, caricatures, dark history and binary debates, and stop at that. In fact even its author, while pointing out the problems of the system, said “when we replace it with something else”, thus showing how daunting the task is. Because the truth is we do not really know what this “something else” exactly looks like and how to bring it about.
In an article that I read this week, and the only one I will quote, by Pankaj Mishra, in the Guardian, After the Paris attacks: It’s time for a new Enlightenment I found a very accurate summary of our world, based on a reading of Hannah Arendt: we live in a world in which countries and peoples with different pasts live in the same present. That, the article continued, presupposes the need for a new Enlightenment, in which we talk more about moral obligations and solidarity than rights and standards.
For myself, while not having a clear idea of what the “something else” or the new Enlightenment is fully made of, I can say I think it passes through personal responsibility with respect to private lives and the Polis, through an economy based on solidarity, which is not exclusively defined by pecuniary profits, but also profits one can make in terms of intellectual and quality of life gains, through a renunciation of fear that what we are is measured by what we have or what we consume; I think culture understood as the fabric of our lives and our itineraries and those of our ancestors is going to be the bedrock of our experience and therefore societies will stop trying to prove their supremacy over others because they won’t need the erasure of another in order to prove their self-worth. I do believe, however, that for such an order to emerge we shall need to leave aside our fascination with a binary approach to the world and emphasise the power of invention and innovation by bringing forward not only qualified criticism but also proposals.
In the end, whether people identified or not with Charlie Hebdo is not even an issue. As long as it has taken them towards a deeper reflection of what they want to make of their lives, the death of the attack victims, as well as that of thousands others killed in the name of hatred can begin to have a meaning other than that of a cruel twist of fate. Ruxandra Stoicescu