Reading Charlie Hebdo

While working in my office waiting for the blizzard to arrive I concluded this would be a good time to post on my blog.  This column is co-authored with Professor Karen de Bruin and her colleagues in the French Section of our Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures.  Like most people I found the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the surrounding area, which began with an attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, to be a disturbing reminder of the fragility of peace and our social order. These attacks should also remind us that modern transportation, social media, translation software and the internet tie us more closely together than ever before.  Consequently, our increasingly global society requires us to become more sophisticated and responsible than ever with regard to how we understand cultures, languages and cultural products. It is in the spirit of sensitivity to cultural difference that this post will suggest starting points from which a university-wide discussion of Charlie Hebdo tragedy could begin.

Charlie Hebdo is a weekly French caricature newspaper that positions itself on the left of the French political spectrum. Since Charlie Hebdo emphasizes caricature, one needs a solid understanding of the French language and also familiarity with French current events, politics, religion, history, language and culture in order to understand it. The journalists and caricaturists at Charlie Hebdo see themselves as defenders of both secularism (laïcité), a founding value of the French Republic, and freedom of expression. But more importantly, they see themselves as promoters of humor. They pride themselves on poking fun at people, ideas, events and phenomena, and religion. They mock all political parties, regimes and religions, and they are especially provocative in their criticism of extremism. Though the vast majority of satirical articles and caricatures in Charlie Hebdo, have to do with a broad range of contemporary politics and current events, they have recently targeted the National Front party (Marine Le Pen’s party whose rhetoric often unfavorably targets immigrants in France) and radical Islamists.

Four of France’s greatest and wittiest caricature artists were killed in the attacks. These four artists, and especially Cabu and Wolinski, were intellectuals, journalists, artists and humorists of the first order. Their caricatures almost always embodied what is known in France as “second-degree humor, ” which is a mix of satire, wit, play on words, suggestion, repartee and implicit or explicit mockery. It is the very basis of French humor, and has been for centuries, but it can lead to multiple interpretations, and almost always requires a deep knowledge of context. The fact that second-degree humor is integrally part of the French spirit explains in part why regular targets of the caricatures in Charlie Hebdo, like former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president François Hollande, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé and current Prime Minister Manuel Valls chose to participate in the large protests against the terrorists.

It is also important to recognize that French republican values are very much rooted in “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” much as American values are rooted in “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The French perspective on religion has roots in the French Revolution of 1789 and its first constitution that established freedom of conscience as an inalienable right. In 1958, the French constitution went further to defend secularism more generally stating: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It insures equality before the law for all of its citizens independent of origin, race or religion.”

Consequently, the French State believes that while everyone has the right to practice a religion, people also have the right to not have religion imposed upon them. Many French people do not identify with the political and anti-clerical stances of Charlie Hebdo, but by the same token, they may not consider the newspaper offensive, either – they consider it French. On the contrary, the terrorists who carried out the attack apparently considered Charlie Hebdo to be not only deeply offensive, but also a threat.

These are just some of the things that must be considered as we try to make sense of what happened in France, as we should as a university. Learning language for professional reasons is only the first step toward learning about another culture. Language learning that strips the study of language from the study of culture, and that allows learners to judge the world solely from the perspective of their own values and presuppositions, will only impoverish our global understanding. As academics interested in the promotion of global learning and competency, we have a responsibility toward our students, our communities, and our mission to understand the world’s increasing globalization to promote the study of language in tandem with the study of culture. At the very least, this holistic study will allow us to learn and to judge grand challenges from different vantage points than our own. It might also just diminish the risk, even if slightly, of future attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo.