I know it's a bit late.
It's taken me awhile to get clear on how I feel, and to apologize for my initial reactions.
It’s interesting times, being an American Francophile. Most of my friends who are fans of the French or of France jumped on the “Je suis Charlie” campaign ASAP. I waited a few days, absorbed in a retreat I was teaching, only able to read on my phone, never able to read deeply enough. I kept everyone I know in France and all those I don’t know in my practices – Metta, Tonglen – the victims, the terrorists, everyone. I posted little-to-nothing on Facebook, which is my main social media outlet.
Then some folks I trust and respect started pointing out more critical articles, pointing to Hebdo being a “not innocent” institution. While I am usually wary of this line of thinking (“She asked for it, judge, she was wearing a skirt!”), I never particularly – nor do I now – liked Charlie Hebdo. Living in France, traveling in France over the last twenty some years of my life, I generally leafed through the issue, repulsed by its images while also knowing their satirical nature. However, in my moments of reactiveness, of feeling I needed to say SOMETHING. Why did I feel I need to say something? Friends who know me as Francophile were asking how I felt, wanted to know how they should feel, for better or worse. I reacted and posted based on those old reactions. I broke a cardinal French rule: neglecting Voltaire’s maxim (paraphrased: I may not like what you say but I will defend your right to say it) I based my reactions on not liking Charlie Hebdo.
I started re-posting articles that criticized the publication, even as they clearly stated they were not saying the cartoonists or magazine asked for it. They still imply it.
The French, generally, are pro-criticism and pro-critical thinking. This is what I betrayed in my need to say something: I dropped my own more subtle awareness of Charlie Hebdo’s satire in favor of reactivity. Why?
I understand full well why they use racist images/cartoons in their issues. (Here’s a good article on Al-Jezeera about how satire is sacred in France. Here's one on vox that explains how double-layer satireworks in the French culture, including a great statement: "satire that indulges racism along the way:) In short, Hebdo doesn't actually create many of its ideas. It uses images already described in media. For instance, this heavily reproduced image is made from the Front National's leader's description. It is used to make her out to be the racist, in a direct way that the majority of readers would understand. This is a part of the double-layer satire I mention above. I know that a lot of American media missed this. I didn't miss it.
However, I still think it is problematic. It is not as simple as "Hebdo is racist" for me. For me, satire does not justify perpetuating aggression. I simply think there are other ways to do it. I don’t agree with them, in other words. But it’s a subtle not-agreeing. A not agreeing with a particular tack, angle. Not a disagreeing with a world view. The cartoons are racist, even though they are using racism to leverage against those who initially expressed it. I don’t think the cartoonists are racist, or the magazine is. That takes awhile to explain. I feel like I can finally state it clearly.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in this careful post to Atlantic Monthly (which also has, as always, very intelligent discussion following, for once on the internet!), he took heed in Paris as this was happening and listened to all sides and parts, like a good student of any foreign culture does. After reading his post and the comments, I finally felt I could write what I have been experiencing. And part of it is something akin to guilt. Guilt that I let ignorance fill me, first, literally trying to ignore it was happening, then letting much simpler posts and articles speak for me, when I could be responsible for my own more nuanced view.
My mother always hated it when we said, like teenagers and kids do, “I’m so-rry,” with no actual apology behind it. She warned us, like other mothers might warn kids to eat their veggies, to not apologize without real feeling. Save it for what we meant. For what we actually felt sorrow for.
Later, in my teens, she taught me Mea Culpa: Latin, a more formal way of saying, This is My Fault. Reserved for very specific and special circumstances, I feel it is appropriate here. It is appropriate for me to say I am sorry for not expressing myself more clearly about Hebdo, earlier, with so many people waiting on me to have a read on what is happening.
Because the fact is, Charlie Hebdo, which I do not identify with and never will, did not ask for this action. And the fact also is that the state of being any minority – visual or verbal – in France is pretty awful right now: Jewish, Muslim, African, Middle Eastern. There’s a lot of anger and aggression going around there and it’s extremely confusing and scary. Adding blame to that game is not helpful.
The “I am Charlie” manifestation is expressing solidarity – a key feature of French society – that means far more than identifying with the publication. And yet I couldn’t say it. Maybe because I am not there right now, not connected enough, not reading enough. Maybe because my knee-jerk inner French-leanings ironically got in the way of me doing a very American thing: jumping on the band wagon and saying that I am Charlie. And yet, my very American habits then kicked in and put me on an opposing bandwagon.
I won’t say I am Charlie. As Coates says “I may be Charlie?” I don't actually think it's my place to say. I am not French. I may, despite all my study and sympathy, be missing something. Likely I am. But I am also not not Charlie. It saddens me to see the French government tightening up in a potentially post-911 manner, ala Patriot Act. I worry about reactivity everywhere, including those in Coates' post who say that “Je Suis Charlie” means the future of Europe.
After a tragedy, we are all subject to quick reactivity – whether it is jumping to support or denigrate, it tends to be dualistic. I promise to spend more time in the coming weeks and months, connecting with my French folks, going more deeply into myself. This means I will never be able to say in one line how I feel about it, and certainly can’t tell anyone else how they should feel. That’s just not how I roll. But at least I can admit nuance and take the time to commit to only knowing my own confusion.
Finally, let us not forget that while all of this has been happening in France, awful and for the most part overlooked massacres have been happening in Africa. Not enough of us are considering saying "Je suis Afrique," an especially challenging possibility considering France's post-colonial relationship with Africa.