Laughing in Difference: Revisiting Charlie Hebdo

By Brian Klug.

“How can people live together in difference?” asked Stuart Hall, the late cultural theorist. Hall, who was born in Jamaica but lived in the UK all his adult life, was well-versed in the diversity about which he wrote. He was a distinguished academic, but when he posed this question, he was not setting an exam paper: he was throwing down the gauntlet to post-colonial Britain and Europe.

In a rapidly globalising and transnational world where humanity, in all its variety, is discarding and redefining old labels, or combining them in novel ways, the question encompasses more than culture and ethnicity. Other categories of human identity, such as gender, are changing, dissolving, evolving. In such a world, no political question is more crucial than the one that Hall asked. In light of post-colonial Europe and more specifically a moment that stirred the dust of the French past – the Charlie Hebdo affair – it is important to question, what does it signify about political belonging in a post-colonial European state?

On Sunday 11th January 2015, millions of French people took to the streets in towns and cities across France, protesting the horrific attack four days earlier on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They bonded around the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’. The slogan could also have been ‘La France est Charlie’, for the sense of their protest was this: France stands for free speech, including uncomfortable humour, like the cartoons mocking (the prophet) Muhammad which led to the attack in Paris. The mass protest implied a simple binary: either you identify with Charlie or you are not truly French.

Humour was used as a touchstone. But humour is not that simple nor that innocent. As a general rule, the deeper your sense of belonging to a place, the more you can afford to parody others openly and, in turn, be parodied by them. Which is why it is telling that, on the whole, the cartoons poking fun at the prophet Muhammad churned out by Charlie Hebdo in issue after issue did not tickle the fancy of France’s North African Arab population, most of whom are Muslim.

French Muslims are, of course, diverse. This includes the ways in which individuals see their relationship to Islam. However, you do not have to be a believer (let alone devout) to fail to see the joke or to appreciate the satire when the Prophet is depicted naked in pornographic poses. It can be enough if you (or your antecedents) are from Algeria or one of the other former French colonies in the Maghreb, especially if you live on the margins of society, in les banlieues: the poorer suburbs around Paris and other major cities. From this vantage point, each and every one of Charlie’s pointed caricatures is yet another dagger aimed directly at your collective heart by an establishment from which you are effectively excluded; which is hardly amusing.

It might seem counter-intuitive to refer to Charlie as part of the French establishment, as the magazine fires salvos at every respectable target it can find. But, ironically, this is precisely the source of its status. Charlie is the unofficial jester at the Republican court. It is France’s freelance Shakespearian Fool, self-appointed to perform the role of lampooning the powerful and mocking the superstitious. Its origins lie in a Republican tradition, one that looks back to the eighteenth-century genesis of this Enlightenment state with its contempt for all things royal and clerical. Whether Charlie’s relentless ridicule of Islam is true to that tradition or, on the contrary, a betrayal of its roots — a betrayal of the noble role of satire — is, however, a moot point. The magazine has its defenders and detractors. The former praise Charlie for its courage: for taking risks and breaking taboos. But the question of whether it plays the part of republican hero or street bully depends on whom it chooses to pillory or taunt. The privileged? Or the disadvantaged? Those on the margins? Or the group to whom the state basically belongs?

Into this divided France the catchphrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ fell like an axe, cutting even deeper into French society – into the very crack or fissure to which Charlie itself has made a modest contribution with its caricatures of Muhammad calculated to ‘offend’. In the public debate over Charlie (and over free speech in general), the word ‘offend’ has proven to be controversial, having been stretched so thin that it covers almost any reaction that could be described as negative, regardless of the nature of the provocation or the impact it has on the person ‘offended’. But there is a world of difference between, say, affronting church-goers by using an obscenity, and, say, humiliating a group that is already demeaned, accentuating their deep sense of alienation from the nation. Lumping together cases as different as these under the rubric of ‘offend’ muddies the waters. For one thing, it treats all negative reactions as equal when they are not. For another, it tends to reduce them all to the lowest common denominator; for ‘offend’ is, after all, a rather mild term. Vicars are offended in Victorian novels (especially at teatime). But they belong, securely; they feel they belong in the company of the people at whose words they take offence. A deep sense of alienation is the antithesis of a deep sense of belonging. The give-and-take of the game of ‘offend’ only makes sense among people who, deep down, know they belong on the playing field: people who feel at home. On the periphery, le mot is hardly juste.

On the periphery, people may feel they do not belong, not in the full or deep sense of the word: the sense in which you feel that the country belongs to you. For those who not only were not Charlie but who felt nullified by Charlie, the slogan was a message sent from the centre to the periphery: “If you want to be one of us, identify with Charlie.” Adopting the slogan, France closed ranks; and the protests on 11 January 2015 were a massive mise en abyme, a hall of mirrors in which the French self was reflected to infinity. This was fraternité with a vengeance: fraternité for some (Us), hostilité for others (Them).

What is the way forward? How might the French people pick up Stuart Hall’s gauntlet and live together in difference? The answer begins with recognising that difference is not mere difference: it is the visible trace of a terrible history. The first lesson in political belonging in any post-colonial European state (whether France, Britain, or any other) is this: there cannot be a future together without reckoning with the past. 

This is not necessarily the past that Europe imagines for itself. Europeans are in the habit of thinking that for centuries they have been in the vanguard of the human race, showing the way forward to a backward and wayward world. France’s ‘civilising mission’ is well known, but every European state that planted its feet on the soil (and the neck) of other countries has harboured a similar idea of itself. Each has groaned, to a greater or lesser extent, under the ‘white man’s burden’: the burden of imposing rule on other people in their own lands for their own good, the burden of extracting their minerals and other resources (including human) for the well-being of the native population; in short, the incredible burden of being obliged to conquer, subdue and exploit for the sake of the advancement of humanity as a whole: to civilise. And even if Europe today modestly plays down the civilising role it has played in the world, humanity, so deeply in Europe’s debt, has not forgotten. Perhaps, though, it remembers it differently.

Habits of thinking die hard, as do structures of unequal power. It would be nice to think that the past is passé and we are free to plan the European future from scratch. But this is a dangerous illusion. The past is too recent not to be present. Moreover, it is not past: it has merely metamorphosed, adapting itself to changing circumstances. Since the end of the Second World War, denizens of former colonies of European states have emigrated to the former metropole, where they have enjoyed a similar status to the status they once had in their countries of origin under imperial rule. Take, for example, those French Muslims of North African extraction who, as Paul Silverstein has put it, “feel excluded from a nation whose citizenship they nominally hold”. They experience their lives in France “as a post-colonial continuation of … colonial forms of exclusion and violence”. The colonial periphery has not disappeared: it has merely changed location, moving to the European continent from its offshore sites in Africa and Asia. It is the then in the now.

So, when we broach Europe’s future, we begin not in the present but in the present-past. This is the tense of our enquiry. If we ignore the past and the painful task of reckoning with it, then the question ‘How can people live together in difference?’ ceases to be political and becomes merely sentimental. In the present-past, this question is not only about bridging differences of culture, it is also about overcoming the disparity in status written into the script of colonial history. In a way, ‘Je suis Charlie’ was a collective denial of the past – and therefore of the present.

In short, reckoning with the past is the necessary condition for living together in difference. Laughing together too.

Brian is a Senior research fellow and lecturer in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford.

Artwork by Den de Barros.

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