“Je Suis Charlie” –Qu’est ce qu’on veut dire?
A legitimate question to my mind at least. Accepting as I must that the national conversations of western democracies have regressed to the point that what passes for discourse is no more than the exchange of small brightly polished tokens that we present to one another much as monkeys comb each other for lice, I understand the potency of symbols that pretend a universal value for so long as we don’t enquire too closely as to what they may mean (else we’d need to accept that they mean something different for each of us). I know I’m bound to be accused of missing the point, which is solidarity (with what, exactly?) but still it seems to me that if our languages have not entirely devolved to the pointing and grunting stage, it may be permitted to wonder what certain words, grouped together, are intended to mean. If not that, then perhaps I am allowed to ask what this particular cultural signifier may signify.
My heading is deliberately irreverent, since I’m mindful that the victims of this latest tragedy in France (at least, the victims who we’re being urged to remember) were professional malcontents whose work was enjoyed by at most a few thousand-like minded individuals. We can only imagine how farcical they would have found the present situation: a media army witness to assorted heads of state clambering over each other to ascend the pulpit while literally millions await the sermons that will tell them how they feel. The ridiculous spectacle would have given them a good laugh at least.
Our politicians don’t care about free speech: they advertise that fact every day in the laws they pass and their executive actions that seek to restrict it. If there is a legislative fallout from Charlie Hebdo it won’t be seen in laws that promote a more open society.
The simple truth is that France has suffered an atrocity; and if I point out that worse atrocities have been committed around the world in the last few months and weeks, that does not diminish the horror of these events. There is no scale of magnitude of evil that we can apply to derive comparative evaluations of such impacts. We can however judge relative effects on public consciousness, using rough metrics such as the amount of media attention generated, the commentaries of the “statesmen” of the day and the extent to which private citizens manifest their reactions. On that scale, it feels as if the effect here has been disproportionate to the cause (or if you were a terrorist, you might say you earned a high return of terror from a relatively minor investment of resource).
Why? If we were concerned about the scale of the tragedy (17 dead) we should contrast it with the thousands of Nigerians killed by Boko Harun in the last few weeks alone. If it is defending free speech that excites us, why have there been no rallies for the 42 young students murdered in Mexico on the orders of the local mayor for daring to criticize their elected representative? The Paris killing was savage, but for barbarity the act itself – opening up with automatic weapons in a public space (which seems to happen every week in some part of the USA) can’t compare with a “government” making hostages of innocent people and then sawing off their heads on camera as a sick and terrifyingly effective recruitment campaign.
So it isn’t the horror, the principle of free speech or the scale of the event that arouses our passions: it’s that it happened close to us, in our world. We can’t feel our usual sense of superiority over victims who were so foolish as not to be born in a democratic liberal economy. When I spoke with my son about this, in addition to noting that human sympathy diminishes with physical and cultural distance, he made the point that a report that a part of the world that is always catching fire is burning again is not very newsworthy – in other words, there’s also novelty to consider.
Novelty; it sounds like a terribly inappropriate word in this context, but when you are witnessing a media feeding frenzy, modern style, it becomes difficult to relate the hysteric chain of reaction to the serious event that initiates it. Naturally the media is obsessed with itself, so the death of any kind of journalist in this way is news. The political establishment has long existed in a state of symbiosis with press and TV, characteristic of entertainment industries and the commentators who are paid to stoke the fires of those industries. These days, the synthetic emotions that brought the crowds out to mourn Rudolph Valentino, and later Diana Spencer, are fairly easy to mobilize. Certain people are only waiting to be told that they care strongly about something – anything – provided they can march behind a simple, easy to understand banner. A few ghoulish souls fasten onto occasions such as this like feasting vampires and persuade the rest of us that if we are normal we should feel similarly moved. Our leaders surf the wave of manufactured emotion that seems to justify their existence temporarily. Everyone is happy for a while.
Of course, grief turns easily to rage, which is both a danger and what the terrorists are counting on. If you want to start a war you need to build hate and distrust on both sides. I guess that there’s nowhere you can go in the world where the percentage of population that want to do more than get on with their lives exceeds 10%, but it is that small proportion that make or destroy everything. I’m not really interested in the terrorists themselves, insofar as we know well enough now that there is a small minority in every population that is willing and eager to do this kind of thing (for belief or only because they don’t like Mondays). It’s more important to know what the people they claim to represent think about it and why.
To answer my opening question, what it means to be Charlie clearly depends on whether you are a politician (with a sincere wish to maximise the personal attention you attract), a private citizen desperately seeking a strong, pure emotion in an increasing complex and ambiguous world; or a journalist (god knows what drives these boys and I don’t want to spend time inside their heads). The rest of us are just swept along for a while and then we rediscover our sense of proportion.
Objectively, it’s one of the tragedies of our age (every age has its own cross to bear, so to speak) that the oil dependence of developed nations has concentrated vast wealth, and therefore power, in territories that have not yet emerged into the post-religious world that most of us inhabit. Theocracy was a powerful and damaging force in the years when Europe was emerging from the middle ages, but if the popes of those days had enjoyed the oil revenues of, say the bin Laden family, then things would have been much worse. A half-diligent theologian can find justification for all manner of bad behaviour in the holy books of any stripe; and the spark that lights the bonfire in this case is the sexual insecurity that young males in any culture experience when they first see women challenging traditional patterns of subservience.
History rather than policy will resolve all this. At this point, a mature response in the west would be to drop the pretence that we believe faith of all denomination to be a marvellous thing: it has never shown itself to be such, at least so far as the bloody chronicles of organized religions are concerned. I’m not making a Dawkinesque argument that we have some sort of duty to persuade people to give up believing. It seems that the taste for belief is at least as strong and habit forming as the taste for alcohol and I know many excellent people who derive comfort from both. Established state churches are a logical nonsense though. If we believe what we say about all faiths being valid, why have a single Church of England enshrined in the constitution and funded and guaranteed by the state? Either you make everyone in a given country sing from the same hymn sheet (literally) or you accept that religion is a private matter, quite apart from whatever ties us together as a state (which needs to be expressed in a secular, inclusive way). As it is we are hypocritical in the extreme when we talk about other countries; our only excuse being that we don’t actually believe our own rubbish.
If the state sponsored churches had the courage of their collective convictions, they’d be the first to argue for disestablishment; and the free market mob should relish a level playing field for competition in the belief/non-belief sector, always with the caveat that everyone follows the rules of the secular state even if they think that aliens guide our actions through secret crystals hidden at the nexus of ley lines on the Somerset levels.