why saying "Je Suis Charlie" may not be the answer you're looking for

The cultural, social, and economic background contributing to the Charlie Hebdo attack is extremely complex.

From my outside perspective (i.e. only reading about it on the internet for the past decade), Paris has been at a cultural and economic boiling point for a while now.

I'm not suggesting that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was justified in any way whatsoever. However, I think there are a lot of contributing factors that led to the violence and it's worth exploring them.

Saying "Je Suis Charlie" is a culturally loaded statement that many people may not completely understand. This attack isn't as simple as "violent Islamic extremists attacking free speech" -- it's about cultural inequalities in France (specifically, Paris) and how they led to this painful incident.

To give you some perspective, here are two articles that describe cultural tensions present in the greater Paris region and how they may relate to the Charlie Hebdo attack:

France's 9/11 no surprise given the massive alienation in society

Charlie Hebdo attack: A French perspective

If you're too lazy to read those articles, here's a basic primer on the generalized cultural layout of Paris...

The city's wealthy core tends to be full of businesses, tourists, and affluent white residents. As the metropolitan region expands outwards, the population diversifies and the average wealth trends down. In the suburbs, there are large North African and Islamic immigrant communities with limited opportunities for economic growth and often discouraging social prejudice outside of their immediate culture.

If you really want to get specific about it, here's an intriguing study about trends in socio-spatial inequalities in the Paris area.

While that study points out how poverty in the region seems to have diminished in the past twenty or so years, it also poses this fascinating question: "Does the geographical area chosen for this study mask the exclusion of low- and middle-income households, who can no longer afford to live in the Paris region?"

With all of these factors considered, I feel that "Je Suis Charlie" isn't an answer to the attacks that many of my cartoonist peers truly understand. Surely, it indicates a preference for art over violence and expression over oppression. And that's fantastic.

But the saying is still loaded with cultural implications which have, by and large, been kept out of the coverage of this horrible event.

Charlie Hebdo's offices are in Central Paris, a locality that both symbolizes and possesses a great degree of cultural privilege and economic prosperity. Charlie Hebdo regularly ridiculed and attacked Islam, a faith and cultural background possessed by many of the immigrants in the Paris suburbs who're struggling with low incomes, crime, and cultural prejudice from others.

Here's an incredible collection of information about the attack that includes detailed information about the victims and the publication. An interesting idea covered in that article is how "Je Suis Ahmed" has emerged as an alternative to "Je Suis Charlie". (Ahmed was a Muslim cop who was killed during the attacks.)

Essentially, here's what I think -- "Je Suis Charlie" is easy to say. It's catchy. It represents ideals of free speech and non-violence. But it's also from a cultural environment where this "Charlie" can easily be synonymous with the kind of ignorance and cultural prejudice that accompanies a place of privilege in modern French society.

Granted, I'm a cartoonist and satirist from a relatively culturally privileged place in American society. Maybe I'm not the best person to comment on this situation. Hell, my comic book hitting shops this month is called Holy F*ck. It recasts Jesus as a gun-happy hedonist on a quest to stop -- and if needs be, kill -- other gods who are violently desperate to be worshiped.

In a lot of ways, I relate to the provoking cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. I've been actively satirizing culture I find oppressive and ignorant for my entire adult life. I've done it through comics, zines, music, and podcasts. Satire is one of my greatest passions.

As an avid practitioner of satire, I regard it as an often misunderstood tool with potential for incredible power.

If your intent is to simply mock or criticize, I don't think satire is especially powerful. However, if your intent is to pose questions, test the boundaries of the self, explore cultural limitations, and unite people with laughter, then I think satire is an immensely positive force for growth and exploration.

I haven't seen enough of Charlie Hebdo to say whether or not I think their satire is effective. However, a positive force for growth and change was not readily apparent to me in my limited exposure to their satirical cartoons.

From my outside-looking-in perspective, I think the real news story here should be that Paris has long been struggling with inequalities that boiled over into a sad and unfair expression of violence. And "Je Suis Charlie" is a catchphrase that may represent many of those inequalities.

8 Responses to “why saying "Je Suis Charlie" may not be the answer you're looking for”

  1. JB says:

    This is the funniest post you've ever written.

  2. JB says:

    haha. Sorry, I couldn't stop myself. Informative and intriguing. I'll have to take the time to read ll of the links you provide. But thank you for taking the time to write your response. I haven't had time to read up on these events. So I've just been seeing the reactions. this is well thought out.

    • Nick Marino says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read it!

      As someone from Boston, I'd imagine you can relate a bit to the Charlie stuff considering the marathon bombing in 2013. Obviously they're rooted in different philosophies and situations, but they still have many similarities to me.

      I'm interested to hear your thoughts after checking out some of the links too. Those articles really helped me understand why I felt uncomfortable with Je Suis Charlie from the start.

  3. Jen Marino says:

    Well said. It grieves me that such a phrase will be bandied about with no one really understanding the significance. Someone said today it was kind of akin to an attack on The Onion. Um, no. The French have a rich and thick (insert cheese metaphor here) history of satirizing everything, not to mention an intellectual culture vastly different from the U.S. It's not LIKE anything else. It's its own thing. France - specifically paris - has been poised for this for years. I believe it was that morning - or else extremely recently - that Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon of a Frenchman lamenting a forth of terror attacks in France. Hopefully, there will be no more to come, not to mention any more utterances of the shallow and unexamined "Je Suis Charlie."

    • Nick Marino says:

      I don't know too much about Charlie Hebdo beyond the few excerpts I've seen in the past couple of days, but comparing it to The Onion seems pretty off the mark to me too.

      And the "no terrorist attacks in France" by Charb cartoon in this week's issue is definitely a creepy coincidence. I mean, for all I know, they were publishing stuff like that often. Still a sad and unfortunately prophetic comic for this week, though.

  4. Deniz says:

    Well said, dude! No one deserves to be killed for anything, and the men who did this are monsters. But a lot of these cartoons (Charlie Hebdo) look like something you'd find maybe on Rush Limbaugh's site, and then he'd be asked to take them down. I guess what bugs me is that in my minimal exposure to liberal, educated European culture (I've spent extended time only in Madrid and Istanbul) is that racism and homophobia are more tolerated there than in the equivalent group in America. I absolutely support free speech, and again, cannot say enough how much I abhor what happened to these poor staff members. But I guess what I'm trying to say is watching you, Nick Marino, mock religion feels different and better than watching my racist grandma (aka Paris/Europe) mock religion. And then seeing a bunch of white hipsters thousands of miles away wear shirts in support of my racist grandma just feels, well, even weirder.

    (For the record, my grandma is actually quite tolerant... and would never wear a Je Suis Charlie t-shirt) 😀

    • Nick Marino says:

      Deniz OMG I'm so glad you brought up the Rush Limbaugh comparison!!! I've been thinking that in the back of my mind since I first read Charlie Hebdo comics.

      I hesitated to outright make that comparison because I'm not well informed about Limbaugh or Hebdo's general views on things, but to me it feels like the most apt one out there.

      They're both ignorantly hateful with the intention of shocking people to gain attention, right? That's my impression. And maybe some of my satire has that affect on others...