Are we all Charlie Hebdo?

2015-01-11 15:00

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In the crazy hours after the attack on the Paris office of the satirical weekly in which 12 people were executed with an icy efficiency that has shaken France to its core, messages from my French friends started to land in my inbox.

They were remarkably similar in their raw feelings: disbelief, sorrow, anxiety.

“I put a candle in my window,” wrote Christophe. “I feel like crying.”

“I don’t know what to say, except that we are all appalled and?…?SAD,” wrote Martine.

“We are so anxious for the future of the world,” wrote Nathalie.

Marie was doubly devastated – she knew one of the victims: economist Bernard Maris.

The world as my friends knew it had just tilted on its axis, yet it was too soon for anger.

Instead, as I read one email after another, this is what I heard: the people of this noisy, argumentative nation I sometimes call home had put down their politics to comfort one another as citizens, as humans, in crisis.

They told me about their plans for the weekend: to join communities across France, gathered to mourn the dead.

Vigils would be held at the top of ancient stone towns, candles would be lit at peace monuments and village mayors would distribute “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie Hebdo) badges, the slogan that has come to stand for solidarity and common feeling with the terror victims.

As France’s far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen seized the chaotic moment to make xenophobic hay, blaming immigrants (read Muslims) for France’s problems, my friends had already anticipated this type of blowback.

Bernard wrote: “What has happened is terrible for those committed people and terrible for freedom of expression. I am also concerned hatred may rise against a population that cannot avoid being confused with the guilty extremists.”

Marie wrote: “I just hope that after January 7 we will not become like the United States after September 11 and start to justify selling arms and using torture against others in the name of ‘patriotism’.”

Since Wednesday’s attack, countless commentators have pitted the image of the executioners’ guns against the pencils of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. The inference is clear: guns are dangerous, words and images are not.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify Wednesday’s cold-blooded murders. Yet to say words and images don’t have the power to hurt is not true. It is why we have defamation laws, why hate crimes include hate speech. In France, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust happened.

My friend Christophe, a Charlie Hebdo fan from youth because of its “provocative teenage spirit”, sent me a selection of some of his favourite covers.

They included advice for how to lose 30kg before a beach holiday: get Ebola; a Catholic priest patting a small boy on his lap and saying: “If you’re nice to me, I’ll take you to the anti-paeodophile demo”; and a fresh turd on a French flag with the words “Le Pen: the candidate who looks like you”.

Funny? That’s a matter of taste and perspective. Offensive? Of course! Devout Catholics will surely be upset by the implication that the priest who leads the Sunday sermon may sexually molest their son when everyone’s eyes are closed in prayer. Why wouldn’t a National Front supporter take umbrage at being compared to a lump of shit? How must the Ebola diet sound to the ears of a Liberian right now?

But offence comes with the territory in comedy – and concepts like “respect for others” and “sensitivity” are not part of the successful comedian’s job description.

Ask France’s bad-boy stand-up comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. A self-described “anti-Zionist”, he has often been convicted and fined for making provocative jokes.

Charlie Hebdo itself has been accused of giving Muslims a harder time than anyone else – when jokes aimed at other targets have not had such uproarious consequences.

But in 2009, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist was fired for making a – fairly opaque – joke about Nicolas Sarkozy’s son, who was rumoured to be converting to Judaism to marry a Jewish heiress.

“He’ll go a long way in life, this little lad!” Maurice Sinet wrote. When asked by his editor to apologise, Sinet said: “I’d rather cut off my balls.”

He later faced formal charges of slander for anti-Semitism.

We all say we believe in human rights, when mostly we mean our own. We all think we’ve got a sense of humour, until someone doesn’t get our joke – then we accuse them of sense of humour failure.

As Dieudonné and Sinet found out, one man’s punchline is another man’s poison. Fairly or unfairly, Dieudonné continues to be hauled before the courts. Rightly or wrongly, Sinet got the bullet from his boss.

Still, nobody died.

Guns and words both have negative powers. But only words have positive powers. Words can soothe and heal. Words can make us love and laugh.

Am I Charlie Hebdo? Perhaps not, if it means standing up for a magazine of small circulation and questionable taste.

But if it means standing with my fine French friends in their quest to balance freedom with empathy and tolerance with teasing humour, then yes. Je suis Charlie.

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