When the vast majority of Parisians were taking to the streets with “I am Charlie” signs, in solidarity with the families whose loved ones were brutally killed, a few others began claiming on social networks “I am not Charlie.” What happened?
The people I saw posting Je ne suis pas Charlie aren’t members of France’s extreme-right National Front party, as far as I’m aware. Nor would they ever make the barbaric and revolting claim that anyone “deserved” to be killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression, a right won during the French Revolution and during the protests of May 1968.
Dada or May ’68?
So what gives? I feel firmly "Charlie" and I’m terribly sad, for France, and especially for the families of those who died. My point here isn’t necessarily to condone or condemn the illustrators Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous, and Wolinski for their drawings. What interests me is to understand the cultural context of the satirical Charlie Hebdo. What led those cartoonists to make such controversial drawings when they had already been attacked in 2011, and knew their lives were in danger?
Some friends I spoke with cited Charlie’s roots in the absurdist urges and the deliberate offensiveness of the Dada movement. Others, of course, mentioned the free-thinking ideals of the French Revolution, and still others talked about the student and worker’s demonstrations of May 1968.
They died laughing
But Charlie Hebdo isn’t the only media that exhibits the French sense of the absurd. If you’ve ever seen Jean Dujardin’s portrayal of secret agent OSS117 Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath in the spy spoof Lost in Rio, you’ve witnessed the irreverent mockery found in some French humor.
OSS117 is a secret agent stuck in the 1950s, and the world has moved on without him. A little along the lines of the Naked Gun series (with Canadian Leslie Neilsen), Lost in Rio is more than politically incorrect. Agent OSS117 is offensive, racist, and so outrageous, no one could possible take him seriously.
Or could they? A few deranged extremists took Charlie Hebdo seriously enough to kill 17 men and women. At the demonstration, we saw this sticker: “They died laughing.” Is this just another joke made in bad taste? Whose taste? Or is this a way of saying that the cartoonists died the way they would have wanted? What about the other men and women who died, not laughing?
Either way, there’s no denying it: Charlie Hebdo has always exercised its right to be provocative since its founding in 1970, after another satirical newspaper, Hara-Kiri, was banned. Back when I was married to a Frenchman, I used to see his old copies of journals called Fluide Glacial or Hara-Kiri around the house. They looked kind of trashy, and reminded me a little of Mad magazine back in the U.S.
After the May 1968 protests shook France, illustrators began publishing cartoons that weren’t for kids. They were exercising their newfound freedom from censorship under de Gaulle, president from 1959 to 1969. In fact, if you understand French, secret agent OSS117 talks about France under de Gaulle in this video, once again displaying the obliviousness and absurdity for which he’s known.
Obviously, not everyone thinks the French sense of the absurd, this culture of la connerie or talking-crap nonsense, is funny, least of all the French government back in 1970. That first newspaper, Hara-Kiri, was banned because it made a joke out of the president’s death. (In fact, the Charlie in Charlie Hebdo refers to Charles de Gaulle.) Both journals were a pure product of the previous period, la France gaullienne, and Charlie Hebdo became an “equal-opportunity offender,” making fun of Catholics, the Pope, Jews, and Muslims.
It seems like everyone (including this culture blogger) except Parisians have pointed out that just because free speech exists, that doesn’t mean we should use it to mock others. But that’s the whole point of absurd humor: to provoke people. To provoke them into some kind of reaction, to spur them to find out more about an issue, and to decide for themselves if it’s right or wrong – anything to shake them out of complacency.
Humor is a weapon
But if you don’t think the absurdity is funny, does that make you a reactionary or an extremist? (Maybe that just means you’re not French – without resorting to sweeping generalizations, bien sûr.) What was different in the eras of the French Revolution, the Dada movement, or the 68ers, as those protesters are known? Is Charlie Hebdo’s level of satire inappropriate for the world we live in now?
It all depends on whether you think combating extremism was more or less important in those times than it is now. Parisians like to say that humor is a weapon. So is the answer to stop using that weapon, and back away from French satirical tradition in order to placate radical extremists who kill those who mock them?