Saturday, January 17, 2015

It's a French Thing

We readily imagine that we are a very tolerant civilization, that we have welcomed all forms of the past, all the cultural forms foreign to us, that we welcome also behavior, language, and sexual deviations.  I wonder if this is an illusion. - Michel Foucault
By Finbarr Curtis

The proliferation of essays following the Charlie Hebdo massacre confirmed Roland Barthes's observation that "Every national shock produces a sudden flowering of written commentary."  Most rallied behind the slogan "Je suis Charlie," but some offered other views.  In this vein, I wrote something that resisted conventional wisdom.  While I supported Charlie Hebdo's right to free speech and protection from murder, I was less convinced that I needed to applaud Charlie's heroism.  Many lamented how hypersensitive, humorless Anglophone academics like me ignored the French context. As Olivier Tonneau explained, if Brits and Americans knew more we would realize that these cartoonists were precious friends and allies:
Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.
In Adam Gopnik's description, the French have a "savage tradition" of satire that would shock most American sensibilities:
The staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, massacred in an act that shocked the world last week, were not the gentle daily satirists of American editorial cartooning. Nor were they anything like the ironic observers and comedians of manners most often to be found in our own beloved stable here at The New Yorker. (Though, to be sure, the covers of this magazine have startled a few readers and started a few fights.) They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy.
These reported national disagreements recall the 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, which began as a discussion of human nature and developed into an argument about justice, inequality, and freedom. Except in this case, the parties have switched sides.  The French line up with Chomsky to defend enlightenment ideals while some Americans see freedom through the lens of discursive power.

This comparison with Chomsky and Foucault is admittedly superficial, however, and Chomsky himself affirms "Je Suis Charlie" only with strong qualifications.  To bring Foucault's comments from that debate into the contemporary moment, we would have to think about the class struggle in a way that has not been the focus of current discussions of free expression.  Foucault and Chomsky wouldn't neatly line up on either side because national typologies usually don't hold up well under criticism. For this reason, I am unpersuaded that there is some Anglophone gene that causes folks like me to resist identifying with Charlie.  For one thing, the "Je ne suis pas Charlie" crowd is a minority in the United States. The overwhelming sentiment in American popular media supports recent rallies for free speech, especially when the threat to freedom is perceived as coming from violent Muslim extremists. Furthermore, essays like Tonneau's rehearse familiar arguments that are made in the United States all the time.  After all, the discussion of the recent tragedy brought together subjects that are familiar features of American life: free speech, religious dissent, and wanton gun violence.

For my part, I am perplexed by the claim that people like me did not know the context for Charlie Hebdo; Tonneau's arguments were the very thing I was talking about.  The focus of my analysis was the distinction between hate speech and respectable satire.  The brief commentary that I wrote did not address questions about legal rights of free speech or the moral imperative not to murder.  The reason for this is that I do not believe that 3.7 million people ever march to make a point about abstract legal principles.  I was curious about how the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was framed as a matter of identification, and I was convinced that what informed the proclamation "Je suis Charlie" was a sense of wounded nationalism.

There has been little to persuade me that my intuitions were wrong.  Instead of restricting Charlie Hebdo to a matter of legal rights, the "Je suis Charlie" slogan doubles down on nationalism. Charlie Hebdo is not just tolerated; it is quintessentially French. Not only is it in French, you have to be French to get the jokes.   If learning to laugh at images of the Prophet Muhammad is part of learning to be French, this has important implications for French Muslims who take offense at images designed to offend them.  To take offense is to mark oneself as a foreigner, as someone insufficiently assimilated into French society.  To presume that context will exonerate Charlie Hebdo is to take as self-evident that the proper context is European history. As Russell McCutcheon has noted, there is a great deal at stake in deciding who gets to have a context:
The message? We have a history but they do not. We are nuanced and context is therefore needed to properly understand what we’re up to, but as for them….
While I will not repeat all of my previous argument, I still think a publication like Charlie Hebdo enjoyed the privilege of finding other, less sophisticated people's racism and Islamophobia to be a laughing matter.  Laughing at someone else's bigotry is a way of making oneself comfortable. This brand of satire says, "Ha ha. Look at those backward, ignorant bigots over there.  It is a good thing we are nothing like them." Ironic racism is one way that tolerant, secular liberals congratulate themselves for their moral and intellectual superiority. 

I am not saying that it needs to be like this.  Satire can also make us uncomfortable about our own racism and xenophobia.  If "Je suis Charlie" was a way of saying "I am a bigot" and the demonstrations pointed toward a conversation about the many social divisions that confront us, then this would be an interesting discussion to have (and it is possible that this is the conversation that Charlie Hebdo's writers might prefer that we have).  But this is the direct opposite of how affirmations of "Je suis Charlie" ask us to feel.  We hear adamant assertions that Charlie Hedbo is not racist and not Islamophobic.  The problems come from foreigners who don't get the joke. It is only those who take offense who introduce bigotry where no bigotry previously existed.

I would concede that there is a context for my remarks, and that I am shaped by my belief that stereotypical representations have social consequences that go beyond hurt feelings.  In a way, Leigh Phillips sees this correctly when he charges that Anglophone academics have brought their own politics into debates about Charlie Hebdo:
But this episode is about more than just the willful ignorance of a unilingual left luxuriating in its whipped-up dander; there are deeper worries about how such left and liberal critics are approaching freedom of speech in general. The whole affair is quite the nadir for the identitarian left, an object lesson in how its current tendency toward a censorial, professionally offence-taking prudishness is limiting the left’s advance, cutting us off from how most ordinary people live their lives and navigate prejudice, and a breach with hundreds of years of leftist thought and practice with respect to the enduring question of freedom.
Phillips is probably right that if you find contemporary criticism of sexism and racism to be oppressive forms of political correctness, then you will see Charlie Hebdo as courageous. I lack such courage.

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