Two weeks is a strange thing. Time is a strange thing, of course. What is it about two weeks, though? It is a moment in time that can fly by in a daze and be perceived to be much shorter; it can also feel like an unsurpassable void one has to cross in order to get to the other side of the fortnight – to a place where more promising things await and we only have our daydreams to carry us there.
It has been two weeks since January the 7th, 2015. In France – as I imagine elsewhere in Europe – the month of January does not really have a particularly good reputation. The Christmas holidays are over, so all the twinkling lights are gone. Most people are broke and winter is at its most persistent. January is generally a dreary blur following the festive season. One tends to wish, to curse the days away until spring comes – in the hope that it arrives on time, of course.
January up north is a rather bleak time of the year, if we can be honest about it.
It has been two weeks since that very strange day in France. Two weeks that feels like a shapeless moment in time, neither long nor short, even though there is still much of January left.
On that strange day, two weeks ago, three older men who drew crude pictures for a living were seated around a long table alongside their editor and fellow cartoonists, some half their age. Their economist friend was there, too. He was pushing seventy. They had just done a feature on Michel Houellebecq, a very good friend of the economist in question. Houellebecq thought their cover page of him was ‘not bad’. The satirical newspaper had taken the piss out of him, and he had thought it adequate. But it is for other reasons that he is no longer interested in promoting his new book, Submission.
The staff meeting following the release of the latest issue, with a caricature of Houellebecq on the cover, had just ended. A few minutes later, if it was that long, an uncanny two weeks had begun. Hot off the press, a drawing inside the January 7th issue pondering the absence of djihadist attacks in France jokingly assured its readers that an attack in the New Year was likely to be imminent. Signed Charb. And so it was.
An hour later, the unexpected news had already broke and a video of two armed men shouting ‘On a tué Charlie Hebdo!’ (‘We killed Charlie Hebdo!’) had been uploaded to YouTube. Some guy working for an ad agency had put together an image in response to the unspeakable news event. He had written ‘Je suis Charlie’; social media did the rest.
Two weeks later and our easily satiated consumer culture is no doubt bored of being Charlie. It has been a bit much, really, all this white noise, all this posturing by X and Y, and Z and #! against each other. Actively being or not being something is quite a tedious undertaking. We all seem to choose, consciously or unconsciously, what we are. What does being Charlie even mean? The detractors were quick to point out everybody’s hypocrisy (as they do): the presence of certain very questionable heads of state at the solidarity march no doubt left many confused as to where they ought to situate themselves; and the millions who were brandishing their ‘Charliness’ were accused of never having opened the weekly prior to it being ‘canonised’ by a terrorist attack. Factions emerged around the globe: the “Charlies” and the “anti-Charlies”; and within those factions, even more factions emerged, a bit like Russian dolls. Some “anti-Charlies” were people who supported the Charlie killers in what they considered to be a fight for Islam, or they were plainly incensed at the blasphemy of the newspaper. So naturally, they were not going to be Charlie. Elsewhere, though, the “anti-Charlies” were more subtle: they were not to align themselves with a newspaper which, according to them, had ridiculed an oppressed community. Or they thought it vile, crude, not their cup of tea. Some were honest about the fact they just cannot claim to be Charlie, because they simply are not as courageous, or do not have the same appetite for subversion.
But what has been so acute in this whole debacle of being or not being Charlie was the “either/or” approach in so many publications: either you defend free speech or you defend islamophobia; either you criticise the West or you embrace it; either you are blind to your own privilege or you are completely guilt-ridden; either you are a ‘moderate Muslim’ or you are a religious fundamentalist; either you are a victim or you are a rebel; either you are French or you are of “[……] origin”; either you support Dieudonné or you want him silenced; either you give a fuck or you don’t. And so on.
It is therefore pointless and self-defeating to single out a writer, a news channel, a spokesperson or a country, because there are many who have either one view or another and if you are vaguely affected by or interested in this story, you have read them all. Many contain empty designations, such as the recurring ‘moderate Muslim’, repeated so often it is misrepresented as a truth, only it is devoid of meaning and merely upholds myths of people existing as binaries: as either moderate or extreme. Meanwhile, it dismisses the fact that every human being is complex and multifaceted, with their own agency and ambivalences.
If anything, it is safe to say that hashtag-speak has revealed its limits and reduced the possibility to have meaningful, nuanced discussions, because it implies you are either like #this or like #that.
These categorical conclusions have come to define the discourse surrounding the attacks on January 7th, 8th and 9th. This pattern of thinking can be illustrated by the trivial example of the annoying person at the party whose penchant for incendiary comments would lead him/her to say things like, ‘AC/DC is way better than Led Zeppelin’, like it is even comparable. Back to the less trivial topic in question, it is the very staunch nature of these unequivocal reactions that lack awareness of ambiguities, complexities. It is a tendency that needs to put things in boxes first and then weigh them against each other. This approach refuses multiple perspectives – which is frankly a strange approach to have, given the wealth of knowledge we have at our fingertips today. Although, a failure to understand French laïcité on the part of the international press probably comes from not having been immersed in it (it took one colleague to boycott a Christmas party once in the name of laïcité for me to really get it), and no amount of Google can necessarily curb misinterpretations, as was the case with many English-language publications missing the point about Charlie Hebdo’s irreverence. It just shows us how little we know about each other, even within the West. We are disconnected, alienated, stubborn…
The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the dangers of the single story: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become,” she explains in her TedTalk. As a child, she grew up thinking that she either had to write like the authors of the British books she read, or she had to write of her ‘authentically African’ experience as a Nigerian girl. Meanwhile, her multiple perspective meant that she forged an independent, strong-minded voice that serves its own purpose. A voice that is neither coloniser nor colonised, and resounds because it is free.
The single-story narrative lacks context, nuance and therefore casts people into grouped entities, generated by prejudice, biases, and stereotypes. It is a superficial, self-congratulatory discourse. The single-story narrative is not self-aware, because if it were, it would see its own contradictions. It is not humbled by the incredible vastness of what it does not yet know and what it fails to understand.
It is for this reason that making sense of the ‘white noise’ that has dominated these past two weeks has been so tiresome. If we have learned anything from this story, it is that everybody is entitled to an opinion. In an ideal world, these opinions would be raised to listen to each other and not speak against each other. Engaged dialogue is the only way forward to avoid the single-story trap.
In conclusion to my final say on Charlie Hebdo and its victims, I would like to refer to a remark made by Homi Bhabha in an interview with the journal The Third Space. He said, “subversion is negotiation; transgression is negotiation.” The cartoonists who died for their drawings on January 7th were negotiating towards a critical understanding of their own society. It is these transgressions that split open the single-story narrative and expose society’s hierarchies and contradictions; without these transgressions, there is no dialogue. Without dialogue, we cannot rethink our perpetually changing, dynamic society. Perhaps, with time…