Literature, Narrative, and the Attacks on Charlie Hebdo

When reading fiction, I often find that I enjoy the discussion and criticism of a story’s meaning and impact more than I do the plot itself. Usually, I trudge through a book, trying to meet my daily page quota until I mercifully reach the end and voila: I can begin the process of arguing about an endless number of interpretations, narratives and counter-narratives. Truly, the gift of literature to our culture is how it both informs us and allows us to inform it, impressing its story upon us while allowing us to read into it every manner of issue that happens to be on our minds. In literature, the true meaning lies with those who discuss and debate a story and its implications.

One common feature – a less pugilistic man might say ‘complaint’ – is that oftentimes, everyone can walk away from such a discussion feeling like they got it right. Is Okonkwo a hero, villain, or both? Is Kundera right in saying that events that fail to repeat lack the meaning of those that do? Questions in literature often hinge on perspective and definition. Nowhere is this feature more present than in the recent attacks on the offices of the French cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo.

As with literature, two sides have painted convincing narratives that one can’t help but agree with…until they hear the other side. The magazine’s supporters paint themselves as defenders of free speech, launching satirical attacks at public and religious figures indiscriminately, adding that they have regularly lampooned Christian figures as well. While condemning violence, others have criticized the magazine for needlessly inflaming Muslims by purposefully featuring images of their prophet in a less than respectful fashion. Can both of these narratives be right? Yes, but by the same token they can also both be wrong.

Charlie Hebdo – along with France – has a long history of iconoclastic humor and parody. The magazine has regularly lampooned religious and political figures and has been criticized by a wide variety of actors, including the pope and the White House. In this sense, Charlie Hebdo and its provocative cartoons stand as an emblem of free speech, taking on figures regardless of their stature. I do not care for the cartoons themselves – the part of me that would chuckle at such humor has long since passed – but these cartoons stand for the fundamental right of free speech: no person, living or dead, is above mockery. While I find the literature itself tasteless, I am thoroughly intrigued by the principles that they champion. But is our discussion of the story complete? Not quite.

Indeed, there is another side to this narrative that has been raised numerous times: the question of France’s lingering laws against Anti-Semitic speech. One need not read a list of Europe’s crimes committed against the Jewish people to know that they suffered terribly in their centuries on the continent. While the 20th century witnessed perhaps the bloodiest chapter in that saga, suffering and persecution were not uncommon facets of daily life for European Jews. However, in defending free speech after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, France must ask itself if it can truly consider itself a country that practices free speech if a cartoon covering one group of people is considered wholly off limits. While the cartoons in question are clearly offensive, is it the duty of the state to declare what is and is not legal when it comes to taste, especially in light of their attempt to position themselves as defenders of free speech?

Ironically, the question of anti-Semitism’s unique place within French free speech laws sheds light on a competing narrative to the “Je suis Charlie” angle. For while they do not share the same history of persecution as the Jews, French Muslims have been uniquely isolated in the country’s recent history. Inside and outside of France, many people are acutely aware that France’s Muslims, while guaranteed legal equality, do not necessarily enjoy equal treatment from the French government and general public. This is compounded by a lack of respect for some elements of Islamic culture, such as the ostensibly blanket ban on visible religious garb that seems to leave the country’s religious majorities – Catholics and secularists – completely unmolested. 

In such a narrative, we are reminded that humor does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, it is the way in which humor interacts with the truth that entertains, offends, and occasionally informs us. Thus, even if Charlie Hebdo spread their criticism of religious figures equally, it wouldn’t necessarily amount to equal treatment. While Americans know that any kind of racially offensive humor is hurtful, we also understand that there might be a difference in making fun of a majority group and making fun of a minority group, regardless of which group we find ourselves to be members of. If, in the pursuit of a political point, one mocks an already disadvantaged group, free speech may be defended in principle but underlying meaning of the argument is lost amid feelings of hurt and persecution – if such a point were even present to begin with. Satire and mockery as political tools are most appreciated when they fight above their weight class. Again, the narrative both compels and confounds us.

Does this mean that Charlie Hebdo should somehow be legally compelled to stop their uniquely offensive brand of humor? It depends on how we read the narrative. From the perspective of a government that purports to defend free speech, the answer is a resounding no. No government that claims to support free speech should be doing anything to censor or stop distribution of a publication simply for mocking a long-dead religious figure. This could also be an occasion for France to seriously consider whether its practice of holding one specific group above ridicule is still necessary. Similarly, people across the world would be wise to consider whether free speech is a value worth defending if it only extends to topics that the majority finds worthy of scrutiny and satire. As the recently leaked emails from al Jazeera show, it is easy for a group that finds itself under fire for controversial views to immediately turn their ire to other groups. The phrase “I believe in free speech but…” has little use when the boundaries are constantly evolving and threaten to push voices that challenge groups well-established in the polity – the very groups that need to be challenged – to the fringe. In these cases, freedom of speech is defended not as a principle, but a matter of convenience that is dropped the when it pushes beyond the boundaries previously deemed appropriate.

At the same time, if we read the narrative with an eye on the oppressed and downtrodden, we might have qualms about celebrating a magazine that spews it bile at one of the most marginalized segments of French society. While free speech can allow us to challenge those in power, it can just as easily be coopted by the strong to further the existing power dynamic. Free speech without limits doesn’t automatically entail a free flow of ideas and can lead to an onslaught of cries that overwhelm any opposition. We should ask ourselves how we would feel if we were members of a disenfranchised group and on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of satire with little or no recourse. While the goals of free speech are worth defending, these examples of free speech exist in a context that is permeated by speech and actions that often – a little too often – seem directed at one group in particular. While such discourse may be ‘free’ in the sense that it has no limits, it certainly does not serve the other noble goals of most liberal democracies.

As usual, the narrative reigns supreme. It is far more interesting to discuss the implications of these events than it is to rehash the attacks in gory detail, just as it is more stimulating to discuss threats to free speech than it is to review the juvenile caricatures strewn across the pages of a low brow magazine. As with literature, we walk away with opposing narratives that are both correct but somehow difficult to square with each other. It is not the actions that have occurred but how we react that determines the weight of these events. While many in the world have found themselves pulled into these opposing camps, it is refreshing that many have been able to resist the urge to view the issue in such simple and diametrically opposed terms, especially with the short-lived “I am Ahmed” hashtag, which embodied both a respect for free speech and an acknowledgement that defense of free speech does not in any way defend offensive content. While never certain, such nuanced and enlightened discussion offers a glimmer of hope that we may see the many values that lie at the heart of liberal democracies across the world live on long into the future.

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