“On Charlie Hebdo: A Letter To My British Friends” by Olivier Tonneau

A great post shared by Mhairi McFarlane about Charlie Hebdo – specifically about the historical context of the magazine, and more interestingly French culture and the relationship between extremism, Islam and French culture.

http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/olivier-tonneau/110115/charlie-hebdo-le tter-my-british-friends

The only thing I didn’t really agree with is the author’s early reduction of an “I am NOT Charlie” position to a callous, simplistic, faux-lefty reaction to some difficult to parse imagery. Elsewhere, I’ve seen it described as “sneering”.

It’s pretty obvious that I’d disagree with this interpretation, as I’ve pretty much taken the “you know what, I don’t think I was Charlie last week, so I probably won’t be Charlie now” position on the aftermath of the attacks on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve pretty much agreed with quite a few people responding similarly to me, and interpreted their feelings as coming from a similar place.

(Look, this gets really long and probably makes no sense. I kept going back to it during a night of procrastination and head-cold, so nobody should feel they have to read it. It’s brain splurge, and I’ll have forgotten it by morning.)

I know that superficially – despite my usual efforts to painfully, boringly announce and detail every damn feeling I’ve had about a thing – it might’ve looked like I was totally down with censorship, and believe that all satirists should be either kept quiet or murdered. But actually, that isn’t the case. There are a lot of things I don’t agree with, and near the top of that list is that innocent people shouldn’t be killed for making a joke that other people didn’t either understand or like. Yes, I believe that people are still innocent, even after they do stuff that offends people – even quite a few people. I feel that way about Damon Lindelof, and George Lucas, and even Bono.

When I noticed the first few comments about whether or not Charlie Hebdo was a racist rag, I thought it was a) irrelevant and b) a bit soon. The bodies weren’t even cold. Actually, at that point the bodies hadn’t even stopped falling. And now that the funerals have started, I still believe the same thing.

(There won’t be a point where I don’t think politicising the deaths of innocents within minutes of the news breaking won’t be both irrelevant and a bit soon. I’m being pretty consistent about this, too.)

I posted at the time something about the smartness of separating out one’s initial emotional reaction – the one full of grief and shock – and taking the big ideological stances a bit later, when calmer. I still believe that, too. Part of the reason for that is this: It takes a few days for even the smartest, best informed people to start articulating the big points that are really worth reading.

So, my first reaction was “fucksake, people, I know it’s almost always tacky and a bit reductive when people start blindly attaching solidarity hashtags to themselves, but at least they haven’t started on the colour coded profile pics yet… let people have a bit of grief. It doesn’t matter what Hebdo’s content was. The point of lunatic gunmen is they’re lunatic gunmen – you don’t respond to their rhetoric, you respond to the fact of innocents dying.”

Deep down I felt that, like most things, “it’s probably more complicated than you’re suggesting”.

But then within minutes of me seeing those first few dissenting voices, I saw Nigel Farage, on legitimate news sites, using the murders as a springboard to talk about a Fifth Column within “our” (meaning UK) society. And the counter to THAT was almost non-existent.

I DEFINITELY thought “it’s more complicated than Nigel Farage is suggesting”.

Most of the initial responses from normal people I saw weren’t as creepy, but there was this usual blind throwing in with rhetoric that they didn’t know much about. It’s often sincere, but also very immediate and superficial. I didn’t mind it, but I’m apparently a contrarian, so the bluntness of the sentiment didn’t hook me in.

(Also, I love dark satire – Chris Morris is one of my favourite humans – and I’m very conscious that the last thing satire needs is for a mass audience to blindly throw in with it. It’s a comedy that defies catch-phrasing. If you take many lines out of the Brass Eye paedophilia special completely out of context, not only do you sound like a cunt, you also totally break the jokes – which is the worst thing you can ever do to a joke. I wasn’t ever going to claim a different culture’s satire as my own on the spur of the moment like that.)

As the “Je Suis Ahmed” hash-tag started to appear, I got it. I couldn’t claim it either – not my place, and I’m not a big joiner – but I could see how followers of Islam were put in a difficult position by the other hashtag movement. These weren’t last-minute idealists-of-convenience – whether one agrees with Hebdo or Muslims or not, the magazine persistently attacked one of Islam’s deepest held taboos.
It’s impossible for me, and I imagine most of the people I know, to even comprehend what having an article of faith like that is even like, and usually we only see a twisted side of it.
As an atheist, and a Brit, and a white dude with a sociopathic streak, I’ve got even less context for what it would be like being a Muslim in France with a magazine like Charlie Hebdo breaking taboos all up in my face and me just dealing with it, and then the offices being fatally attacked and me having a natural instinct to mourn for the tragedy, than I do about the historical French context of Hebdo.

And liberals… well, most hard-core liberals didn’t have much choice in the matter either. In this world where nuance is dead on every side of every argument, where it isn’t possible to articulate uncertain or complicated points of view, liberals were stuck, because at a point where sincere offence has been taken by an actually marginalised group, liberals HAVE to take it seriously. As an instinct I think it’s broadly speaking a good one, because nobody should love a bully. But HOW seriously is a matter of personal choice, and like most ideologies it doesn’t scale down well into hash-tags.

And you HAD TO USE a hash-tag, so if you cared but weren’t going in kicking, what could you do? I think the main confusion in Tonneau’s post – at least as far as THIS “je ne suis pas Charlie or anyone” chap is concerned – is that not all of the reaction to this tragedy is just about Charlie. In my case, it’s to the cultural aftershock. (In my case it’s almost ALWAYS about the cultural aftershock). The immediate social networking solidarity, heartfelt and fast and as appropriate as it’s possible for tiny posts about shock and god-bless can be, and then the almost as immediate need for people to make deeper comments about it, before we even knew what “It” was.

Very quickly, before even “Je Suis Ahmed”, the hash-tag solidarity created this sort of “for-or-agin-it” culture. If you had any sad feeling about the attacks at all, it felt like if you didn’t frame it in the most simplistic, already echoing terms, you were INSTANTLY in an argument about how you weren’t being sad about the attacks in the right way – something depressingly familiar in online discussion of any big story, I know. I’ve seen someone cleverer than me refer to it as public mood being set at Dead Diana. It’s weird.

Worse, though – and this was really the point at which I started commenting on Charlie myself, because it’s when it got a bit uncomfortable personally for me – something which started happening among Brits I know, but that Tonneau is lucky to have missed, was that the discussion about Charlie quickly became about people defining what it is and isn’t right to be offended by, and what is and isn’t racist, and wrapping themselves in the Charlie Hebdo flag.

This isn’t a straightforward area – it’s a pure “it’s probably more complicated than you’re suggesting” one. Thanks to Tonneau – and I really do mean thanks! – I now have a better understanding of what the French cultural landscape is and has been like historically.

Among the things I now know – or had my confirmation bias massaged on – are that Muslims are a marginalised group in France, that their leaders have voiced issues with Charlie Hebdo before, but that those same leaders, with no real conflict of interest, decried the attacks. That the treatment of Muslims and immigrants in France is NOT GREAT, which was something that despite misunderstandings, Charlie Hebdo took great issue with. That according to Tonneau, historically speaking it wasn’t Islam or immigration that likely made young men into murderers in this instance.

As many have already said, over and over, France apparently has a tradition of this sort of confrontational satire.

But as much as I didn’t know about French culture, I personally also haven’t been responding to the French cultural response to the attacks. Aside from attacks on some mosques – which is terrible but not unpredictable – the French seem to be responding pretty well – the citizens marching for unity, the politicians acting like they’re down with free speech, and Charlie Hebdo still breaking the same taboo, but doing it in a heartbreaking, incredibly poignant, way.

Many of the Brits and Americans I know – because I’m lazy as hell and mostly only know Brits and Americans – have happily turned it into the same old cultural pissing contest we turn everything into, but with a side-order of sudden inexplicable solidarity with French Culture.

Which is a problem. Because in the UK, while we DO have a tradition of irreverence and satire, we’ve also got a deep seam of racism running through our media and our politics. We aren’t alone in Europe, I know, and at the moment, you’d think we only hate Eastern Europeans, but… But…

When you read about a long-held anti-authoritarian tradition in French culture and humour, that separates the conflation of religion from race – something Tonneau makes a strong case for – it’s worth considering that we don’t really have that same tradition in Brit culture, at least where Islam is concerned.

There are people who make the argument that we DO have that sort of nuance in our culture, but those people are usually quite canny racists, or such hard-line atheists that they don’t always care about the human implications of the ideas they’re leaning into.
Or idealists who ignore our mainstream media, or believe that because our mainstream media are dumb poo-poo heads they somehow aren’t a barometer for our cultural identity.

In the UK, at least in the UK mainstream, Islamaphobia and racism are definitely, often if not always, linked. To the extent that our news media, in the last year or two, have been able to sell a lot of papers and spread a lot of fear, on the idea that shockingly there are now white (WHITE!) fundamentalist Muslim terrorists! I don’t think that’s that controversial a thing to say.

For me, personally, at the very least my eyebrow raises when a white Brit friend starts explaining why a marginalised group is wrong to be offended about something, because most of the time it’s quite familiar, with unfortunate associations.

When that group didn’t actually raise the issue in the first place – Je Suis Ahmed seems a fairly diplomatic response to a situation that the murderers raised, and social media responded to, and most of us only know about it because our liberal friends are sharing it – long-winded, well-worn attacks on that group seem extra beside-the-point.

When the comments following most of those attacks very quickly give way to “you can’t say anything about the Muslims these days but I bet if it was a granny accidentally being racist at the Bingo the police’d be right down there” and “this is what happens when a government won’t listen and we’ve been going easy on these people for 15 years” – in THE UK, mind, where the government aren’t going easy on ANYBODY, but for years were happily chucking brown people into detention on the off-chance they might have met a terrorist once – I’m going to have trouble at least not taking the piss out of the commenters, and the post, and Islam and the French and every other fucker. And then I’ll make a joke about how I’m a wanking wanker.

Because we’re ALL ridiculous. And “it’s probably more complicated than they’re suggesting”.

It doesn’t matter whether Charlie Hebdo is racist or not, in relation to the murders, or any unlawful attacks on the magazine. To get into a debate about whether it is is a huge red herring – lots of energy expended, exposing our own personal agendas, while not really making any impact on the tragedy itself. It’s not a discussion that covers any one in glory.

And I’m not even convinced that standing for or against a hashtag has anything to do with free speech. I’m not convinced the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices, or the ones that followed, had anything to do with free speech, and to suggest they were, however well-meaning, is to legitimise the excuses the murdered gave themselves.

I keep reading people with very worthwhile opinions, who are paid to give them, saying that democracy and the right to free speech can not be dictated by a handful of men with guns, and the truth is, they’re right. It can’t, any more than it can be dictated by the death of a dozen cartoonists. To suggest otherwise is simplistic.

At this point I can basically say what I like, right? Nobody ever reads past the second paragraph, and there’s a good chance I’ve been task avoiding on auto-pilot since the first paragraph, anyway. Let’s just say that, if you’ve found yourself disagreeing with me in the last few days on this subject, and yet are WAY more reasonable than, and don’t see yourself in, any of the behaviours I’ve described, than we’ve just been talking at crossed purposes, and have been experiencing slightly different parts of the internet at different times, and I still love you I PROMISE.