Being Charlie – some thoughts on symbols, insults and emotions

Thursday 8 January 2015

As I passed the pharmacy on the way into the shopping centre this morning I saw a girl who had just come out and was sticking up a photocopied “Je suis Charlie” sign on the wall; every website and newspaper has been carrying that message since yesterday and it’s been tweeted millions of times all over the world. I very much suspect that most of the people saying that ‘they are Charlie’ have never even read Charlie Hebdo (just as I haven’t). I found myself getting annoyed today, mainly because of what had actually happened in Paris yesterday – that anyone could be so crazy as to actually kill someone because he felt ‘insulted’, either personally or on behalf of ‘the prophet’ – but also because of all this “Je suis Charlie” stuff. Those murders had been committed by people suffering from the illusion that symbols are important, and the reaction was yet more symbols. If people didn’t take symbols so seriously then they wouldn’t be so easily insulted, people wouldn’t get murdered and other people wouldn’t have to waste their time and energy making yet more symbolic gestures. These are not the sort of thoughts I feel I could really share with the people in my local shopping centre – I doubt if many would understand.

I suppose what I said about symbols could also be said about emotions: hateful emotions were responsible for the murders, and somewhat different emotions were now being drummed up and intensified by the reactions in the media and among the population generally. The world would be a lot better off if there were less emotions flying around in it… I can’t deny that I felt somewhat emotionally affected myself by what had happened, and it wasn’t just sadness but also anger. I even caught myself at one point thinking yes, we need more security to prevent things like this happening, war has been declared so drastic measures are called for: emergency powers to lock people up on suspicion of terrorist intentions, etc., etc. That didn’t last long, and a few seconds later I’d come to my senses, but if I could find such thoughts going through my head, what’s going on in the head of the average moron man in the street? In spite of Muslim organisations quickly condemning the attack, and lots of calls not to blame Muslims generally for what had happened, there have already been attacks on mosques all over France. For some people this will be the opportunity they’d just been waiting for to take it out on the Arabs – and for the government it’s probably the opportunity they’d just been waiting for to collect more information, reduce civil liberties and generally give more power to the forces of law and order. I’ve already heard this event called ‘the French 9/11’, which I found a ridiculous exaggeration, but the consequences could be similar in some ways. All very depressing…

Friday 9 January 2015

I’d been wondering about this strange habit of saying “je suis” or “we are all” someone or something as a mark of sympathy or solidarity, and I get the impression that we’ve been seeing this sort of construction ever more frequently in recent years. I suspect it may have started when John Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner” in 1963; at least, that’s the first occasion I know about on which anything similar was said. I’ve just looked up “Je suis Charlie” in the French Wikipedia, and somewhat to my surprise found a section devoted to the meaning of the term and the origins of that construction (something which I didn’t find in the English version of the page!), and they agree with my idea that Kennedy had started it all.

Saturday 10 January 2015

This morning I did some more background reading on Charlie Hebdo and related subjects, and found out quite a few things I hadn’t known. For a start, the fact that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper which published those famous Muhammad cartoons which caused so much fuss in 2006 (cartoons which were reprinted by Charlie Hebdo and which had more than a little to do with Wednesday’s attack), is actually very much a right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and pro-Israel newspaper, and that Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who was mainly responsible for the publication of those cartoons, is a close associate of Daniel Pipes, a well-known American anti-Islam and pro-Israel activist who has worked with the Bush administration and actively supported Geert Wilders. In 2003 Jyllands-Posten rejected a set of Jesus cartoons on the basis that they were ‘offensive’, and in 2006 they refused to republish some Holocaust cartoons which were being published in an Iranian newspaper, so their enthusiasm for printing cartoons of Muhammad does seem a bit one-sided. Not that I find that they didn’t have a perfect right to publish whatever they wanted, but I wonder how many of the people who were so outraged by the threats to freedom of expression at the time knew quite what sort of a newspaper they were defending.

I also read about the ‘affaire Siné’, in which the cartoonist Siné was fired from Charlie Hebdo because of a cartoon and/or an article critical of Jean Sarkozy. Commenting on the fact that the president’s son had just been acquitted on a charge of leaving the scene of an accident, he’d implied that this had only happened because he was the president’s son, and that the fact that the plaintiff was an Arab may also not have been entirely irrelevant. He’d also suggested that Jean Sarkozy was planning on converting to Judaism because he wanted to marry the rich Jewish heiress he was currently dating (he subsequently did marry the heiress, but apparently didn’t convert to Judaism). Siné was taken to court, not by Jean Sarkozy, but by the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, for ‘incitation à la haine raciale’. Their argument was that he’d reinforced a stereotype concerning Jews and wealth, which is anti-semitic – apparently it’s not acceptable to mention the words “Jew” and “rich” in one sentence, even if you’re talking about a woman who happens to be both Jewish and rich. Judging by some other things he’s come out with I’m pretty sure that Siné is in fact seriously anti-semitic, but it’s still beyond me (in spite of having read a long article by Bernard-Henri Lévy explaining it in great detail) how anyone can be so oversensitive and lacking in humour as to try to prosecute someone for ‘incitation à la haine raciale’ in these circumstances. I wonder if it’s anti-semitic to suggest that Jews tend to be intelligent, cultured and well educated – it’s certainly reinforcing a stereotype! Luckily the courts had more sense and found in Siné’s favour, and Charlie Hebdo eventually had to pay him €90k damages for wrongful dismissal. Seemingly he’d published anti-Islam cartoons in Charlie Hebdo not long beforehand without any problems, so yet again this does look a bit like double standards.

I also came across an article on the anti-neoconservative blog ‘anticons’ which accused Charlie Hebdo of being “la propagande néoconservatrice déguisée en gauche progressiste”. Their suggestion was that whereas those on the right had long been won over to the idea that Islam was dangerous and had to be combatted, left-wingers still insisted on defending immigrants against discrimination and Palestinians against Israeli aggression. A tactic was therefore developed to get the left-wingers onto the anti-Islam bandwagon in the name of ‘freedom of expression’, and before long insulting Muslims had ‘come to be regarded as an anti-fascist gesture’. I’m not one to fall for ‘false flag’ conspiracy theories, but there could well be a lot of truth in all this…

[Update: you can find opinions for and against this idea by past and present Charlie Hebdo journalists here]

Sunday 11 January 2015

This afternoon there was an enormous (and “historic”) march in Paris, protesting about the Charlie Hebdo killings, or maybe expressing national unity, reaffirming the republican principles, or something equally ‘symbolic’. At least one and a half million people, maybe two million, and several dozen heads of state, somewhere between 40 and 70 depending which news site you looked at. OK, it’s difficult counting millions of marchers, but you’d have thought that counting the number of heads of state would have been less of a problem. Anyway, this “historic” event raised quite a few questions for me. For a start, what were all these people trying to achieve, and who was the march aimed at? The existing terrorists certainly aren’t going to be impressed, and although I can imagine a few potential terrorists here and there being so moved by today’s display of unity that they decide not to join the jihad after all, that’s only if I’m really trying to be optimistic. Apart from allowing all these people to ‘express their emotions’ (as if they don’t do more than enough of that already) and increasing the popularity of the participating politicians, I think the main effect – and it’s undoubtedly intentional – will be to make the general public aware of the seriousness of the situation and therefore all the more ready to accept whatever measures those politicians deem necessary, no matter how repressive, discriminatory or anti-democratic they might turn out to be. I also find it quite strange that there’s such an enormous reaction to this event; I don’t remember seeing millions marching and dozens of heads of state joining them when 191 people were killed and 1,800 wounded in the terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, nor when 52 were killed and 700 injured in London a year later. In fact I’m not altogether sure that even ‘9/11’ got quite this sort of reaction. This event is different in that it’s a direct attack on people who have ‘insulted the prophet’, and a direct attack on the press – more similar to the murder of Theo van Gogh than to those indiscriminate attacks – but I don’t think that accounts for the massively increased reaction in this case. I don’t quite understand the extreme intensity of interest here compared to those other cases, but I suspect there’s some political reasoning behind it…

Another interesting question, and a more philosophical one: I wonder how many of those millions of marchers would feel morally justified in hitting someone if they called his or her mother a whore. And out of those who would, I wonder how many realise that their reaction is different only in degree, and not in kind, from the actions of those killers. I must say, Muslims do seem to be particularly sensitive to insult. I read an interview somewhere a couple of days ago with a young Muslim woman (presumably one who was easily identified as such), who was worried about the backlash against Muslims which was already well underway in France. She said she’d really like to go on today’s march and hold up a ‘Je suis Charlie’ sign, but she didn’t dare to as she was afraid she might be… I thought the next word was going to be ‘attacked’ or ‘beaten up’, but no, it was ‘insulted’! The Jews are at least as bad in this respect, although whereas a Muslim who feels you’ve insulted him is quite likely to want to kill you, an insulted Jew is more likely to take you to court about it! I find it difficult to understand how a Muslim can feel just as insulted and emotionally hurt by someone making fun of his religion as a Jew might on hearing a joke about the Holocaust, but judging by the reactions of many of them this does actually seem to be the case.

Some people will say that feeling insulted and emotionally hurt is part of ‘human nature’, and that human nature can’t be changed. On the first point yes, feeling insulted is part of human nature, but so is deciding not to feel insulted: if someone said my mother was a whore I’d say “no she wasn’t, she worked in a shop” – and my ‘human nature’ deserves to be taken just as seriously as anyone else’s. On the second point no, ‘human nature’ can be changed, in fact it’s changing all the time. Each person’s ‘human nature’ changes as they get older and wiser, and one of the changes is to stop taking idiots seriously and not to respond to insults with violence. It’s part of ‘growing up’, and most people manage to achieve it to a great extent before they leave primary school. This ‘growing up’ on an individual level is analogous to what’s called ‘civilisation’ at the level of society, and the problem is that each individual has to repeat the whole history of human development from the stone age to the 21st. century within himself, hopefully helped along by a lot of education and guidance. If a lot of individuals in some societies aren’t quite making it to the 21st. century in this area then that should be pointed out and recognised as a problem; pretending it isn’t true certainly won’t help.

This isn’t to single out the Muslims and Jews for their childish oversensitivity to insult. After all, I distinctly remember an incident involving Bill Clinton in which someone had made some accusation against his wife, something to do with some corruption scandal, which he found to be ‘insulting’. His reaction was something along the lines of ‘if I wasn’t the president of the USA I’d give you a smack in the mouth’, i.e. that an ‘insult’ can justify physical violence. Unless I’m much mistaken the general reaction wasn’t that he was acting like a moron and giving a bad example to the citizens of his country, but rather that he’d shown himself to be ‘a real human being’, or even ‘a real man’. Strangely enough I can’t find a single reference to this incident online, in spite of a fair bit of searching. Either the Clintons have enough influence inside Google to keep it out of their database, or no one found it sufficiently interesting or unusual at the time to put it on a web site. If anyone out there knows any more about this event, please let me know!

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