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'Charlie Hebdo': Lessons to Learn From the Tragedy

08/01/2015 17:35 GMT | Updated 10/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Whilst the tragedy that occurred yesterday in Paris has sparked indignation and horror from the French population and the population in the "West," it is questionable whether these dreadful events will generate a useful and valuable dialogue about violence, both physical and symbolic (or abstract forms of harm).

The attacks should not reduce France to a condition of fear. France and the rest of the "free world" should not consider this horrific crime as an act of war. This would be giving in to exactly what these hooded men and extremist groups want. To characterise yesterday's events as an act of war, as the former Charlie Hebdo's Philippe Val suggested in an interview with France Inter yesterday, "fuels the flame of horror" (Jenkins). Having said that, there is real need for the acknowledgment of these crimes and a need for justice by condemning the individuals involved in the attack. It is not by ignoring these events that the victims and their families can find peace. Rather, it is by speaking about it that they can find their suffering somehow alleviated. It is also by honouring them and their work that not only their families and friends can recover, but also French society. The solidarity of the gatherings last night shows how France can recover.

More importantly, the causes of the attack should not be reduced to a dichotomy between the freedom of press and the sensitivities of individuals practising Islam, or of radical Islam in general. The causes of the attack should not be framed as a Manichean divide between the forces of good and evil, for this is too simplistic to explain these events. More than being a deeply unhelpful narrative, it only perpetuates a dynamic of revenge and thus a cycle of violence. It is feeding extremism itself: individuals who have the desire to commit these crimes, and extreme right-wing political parties who can now justify heightened security measures (plan Vigipirate) and raise once again the issue of the dangerous Islamic influence in French society.

Yet, the reactions from these events have until now, been constrained within those limits. Whilst France should not fear to publish satirical cartoons or live in paranoia, there is a real need to re-orientate the debate over more complex lines of understanding.

Lying in this new understanding is a desire to reclaim the meaning of violence. Violence has so far been associated with physical, bodily violence. Whilst this is certainly the most visible and shocking, violence is enacted through other mechanisms, one of which is language (visual, textual and other discursive power). Strangely enough, physical violence is everywhere. One only needs to consult a list of the Hollywood blockbuster movies and video games to see the extent to which violence is normalised; it is part our everyday life. Yet, it deeply shocks us when the things we see and learn on TV everyday are executed in real life.

Philippe Val, as many French people, expressed his sadness over the ability to "joke around" ("dire des conneries") without being in danger. However, making a passing joke with your friends and nationally publishing insulting cartoons about the Qur'an and Muhammad are not the same. To equate the two is either being simply naïve or wanting to create more conflict, and I would doubt of the naivety of thinkers at Charlie Hebdo.

One of the arguments for the continuation of the satirical humour is that the newspaper gives the same treatment to everyone. In effect, the cartoons have humoured all religions. It has portrayed, for example, Jewish leaders and the Pope in homosexual relations with other men. However, this misses an important point. This would be valid if all religions were on an equal platform. But religions are not detached from their historical and political formation and evolution. Christian practices today are not the same as in the XI Century during the Crusades, thankfully. Religions need to be contextualised within a time and space. They cannot be apolitical. And this is the problem. The "fair" treatment given by Charlie Hebdo is ahistorical and silences the violence of past relationships with individuals practising Islam and Muslim countries that France has held. In that sense, it disregards history.

More importantly, the attacks should highlight the importance of viewing language as an act of violence. This is because language is not merely a tool to describe what is seen as reality, but it is an act that constitutes and creates reality. Language therefore does not merely convey violence, but as an act, it has the power to be violence. Language is a living thing (Toni Morrison). Following Judith Butler, language is a performance with effects. Injurious language thus goes beyond violent speech, it takes a bodily form. It is physical violence. The problem in this context is that we do not see satirical humour as physical violence. We consider words as "just words." But if language is a living thing, the words live and the words are violence.

By rallying under the banner of "freedom of expression" we are rallying under a certain kind of violence. Because now, "freedom of expression" is equated with the freedom to offend. It is associated with the will to do everything one wants, and intrinsically linked with the liberalist ideal of individual freedom, rather than collective freedoms, or collective responsibility and respect. "Liberty" should not be equated with the liberty to injure and to bring violence to people. It should not be equated with irresponsibility and unaccountability, which unfortunately has been the case so far. Problematically, this view of individual freedom resonates too well with these hooded men's disrespect and devaluation of human life. What these attacks and the simplistic view of freedom of expression show, is that human life has been rendered, borrowing from Giorgio Agamben, bare life, life that ceases to be politically relevant. Life that can be killed with impunity. However, the latter is not "barbaric." On the contrary, bare life is a modern phenomenon linked with the inherent individualism in neo-liberalism. The attacks yesterday must thus not be called "barbaric," but they are embedded in the modernity we live in.

The lessons from these attacks should not merely be more "freedom of expression" but more responsible and non-violent freedom of expression.