Asking the Right Questions: What Charlie Hebdo Really Taught Us

Tragic Ball in Colombey – one dead”. This was to be the last headline of “Hara-Kiri”, predecessor to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine targeted in a shooting in Paris on January 7, 2015 which left 12 people dead. Hara-Kiri’s 1970 headline had been a comment on the death of former president Charles de Gaulle. It appeared to mock the way in which de Gaulle’s death all but eclipsed press coverage of a nightclub fire (nick-named “tragic ball”), which had killed nearly 150 people. But to the French government, this constituted a direct attack on the dignity of the late de Gaulle. The magazine was banned, only to be re-launched as Charlie Hebdo.

In 2015, Charlie Hebdo is far from a shutdown. A week after the shooting at the magazine’s offices, the magazine printed a record 7 million issues, up from its usual stock of 60,000. But, as in 1970, one topic has been salient among the myriad of associations and questions the attack has prompted: How do we understand Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures in France’s society, which prides itself on a rich tradition of satire, yet struggles with conflicting conceptions of cultural and social identity? Innumerable takes on this question have appeared in French, international and social media. And more often than not, these responses fall in to one of two categories.

The first category of responses casts Charlie Hebdo as a heroic symbol of free speech. The shooting, consequently, is understood primarily as an assault on free speech as a legal and cultural institution. Therefore, it is argued, one should respond by upholding the freedom of expression as a pillar of pluralistic society and by asserting Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish its caricatures. According to this view, no realm of authority – be it politics, public figures or religion – is safe from the magazine’s ridicule; provocation is an acceptable motive, not grounds for censorship. The magazine’s defiant publications of Mohammed caricatures, including its reprinting of the highly controversial 2005 Jyllands-Posten cartoons, are considered impertinent, but valiant. After all, few publications have printed similar material, often from fear of violent retaliation. Indeed, Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011, an attack often considered linked to an issue mocking Sharia law.

The other camp of voices in the debate are just as emphatic in condemning the shooting, but also stress the magazine’s implication in deepening a cultural divide with content that explicitly mocks the Islamic faith. According to this view, it is problematic to ignore the particular context of power discourse within which the magazine operates. We are wrong to believe that the magazine’s ridicule of Islam is simply part of its general tendency to lampoon religion, considering Islam does not have the same standing as Catholicism, France’s greatest religious sect. The country’s Muslim community is in a more fraught and marginalized position. To realize this, one need look no further than the party currently leading the presidential polls according to most estimates: Marine Le Pen’s Front National, a party notorious for its anti-immigration stance and its inflammatory rhetoric, warning that the French nation is deeply threatened by Islamization. Against this background, many have argued, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons stoke the flames of islamophobia while alienating the Muslim community in France.

Both perspectives are indispensable, but both also run the risk of being overly simplistic. The assumption – often made on both sides of the debate – is that there is a “correct” way to interpret what the magazine’s essential message is. To understand why this is problematic, consider how remarkably different the magazine’s detractors and the cartoonists themselves interpret Charlie Hebdo’s Islam-related content. Where some of the former see “what is frankly a racist publication“, the latter see their work not only as defending free speech – this would hardly come as a surprise – but as in fact “defending the freedom of religion”. This is what Charlie Hebdo’s creators intend when drawing cartoons that attack anyone who does not accept the division between the religious and political spheres, as Gérard Biard, the magazine’s chief editor, claimed in a recent interview.

Unless Biard’s account of the magazine’s goals is untruthful or unrepresentative of its other contributors, this raises a troubling question of interpretation. How much weight should one give to each account respectively? In other words, which view – if any – has a greater claim to objectively capturing the magazine’s message: is it the cartoonists’ intention, or the message that we, as readers, receive?

Free speech implies a dialogue over what ought to be said.

If one regards the caricaturists’ stated intention as what gives the material its definite meaning, this leads to an obvious problem: One bestows all power of interpretation onto the magazine’s creators. In broader terms, this amounts to saying that any statement, no matter how dehumanizing, homophobic or racist it appears to some people, is legitimate unless the person speaking admits to whatever he or she is being accused of.

However, critics of the magazine who consider its content racist risk making a similar claim on the monopoly over the right to interpretation. Specifically, they run this risk if they dismiss the possibility that their interpretation differs from the caricaturists’ intention.

This should neither imply that there is no right and wrong, nor that any interpretation is equally valuable and justified. But it shows how crucially important it is to ensure a public dialogue in which competing interpretations can be voiced. Only this exposure to a variety of interpretations allows us to then consider whether the provocative caricatures featured in Charlie Hebdo are conducive to a pluralist society or not.

This process should be viewed as essential to upholding the principle of free speech. Rather than simply ensuring the freedom to say whatever you want, free speech implies a democratic dialogue over what ought to be said and respected as a valuable contribution to public discourse. This is often overlooked on both sides of the controversy regarding voices like Charlie Hebdo.

Needless to say, such a public dialogue is an exacting process, fraught with its own questions of power and representation. In particular, it has been argued that even when a dialogue takes place, bias of various kinds often excludes certain voices and experiences. The issue is further complicated by the existence of legal limits on free speech: In France, the penal code criminalizes both hate speech and the condoning of terrorism. These laws have been invoked in the recent arrest of French comedian Dieudonné for making a public comment suggesting that he sympathized with one of the suspects in the Paris attacks. This shows to what extent the exact line between statements that necessitate public discussion and those that require legal prosecution remains a demarcation difficult to negotiate, especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks that prompt strong affective responses. Yet this does not diminish, but rather underscores the need for a democratic discussion beyond questions of tightening security or quelling home-grown terrorism, and beyond reductionist interpretations of satire. Ultimately, both camps in this debate would be wise to consider how we can best overcome belligerent attitudes of “us” versus “them” which, while they may invoke the idea of free speech, ultimately make democratic societies less tolerant.

One comment

  • Very astute of you, Victor, to recognize the need for and value of public dialogue. Congratulations on a very well-written piece.

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