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A British expat in France defends the right to feel skeptical about “Je suis Charlie” fever

Joanna_and_Charlie

Marche Républicaine, by João Dias via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Joanna Masters-Maggs in Provence, France.

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France, in Provence. She normally writes about food for the Displaced Nation, but today she offers this opinion piece on the shocking events that took place in Paris last week.

—ML Awanohara

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—this line was actually composed by the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 anecdotal biography of Voltaire and ten of his closest associates, although the statement does capture the spirit of the great French philosopher and wit.

I am ashamed to say that unlike the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 or the London bombings of 2005, I cannot remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard of the shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—I imagine it was something rather prosaic in the kitchen.

I’m not sure what it says about me, but my first thoughts were along the lines of: “Oh good, some news to listen to as I iron.” That, and the usual schadenfreude you feel when something bad happens to someone else. That sinking thrill that it could have been me (I live in France, after all) but it wasn’t, this time at least.

Perhaps I have become immune to these things as a result of my own news addiction and life experiences.

Travelling to and staying in Belfast as a child meant that terrorism occasionally formed the backdrop to my daily life. I still have memories of white-gloved airline staff manually checking our opened suitcases in front of us. I can also recall being scanned, frisked and having our bags searched to enter the so-called ring of steel that protected the Belfast City Centre. Though never pleasant, these searches and quick looks under cars became routine.

For the French, last week was a wake-up call to mass insecurity. The idea of being gunned down while in the supermarket is not a happy one, nor is the thought, for France’s Jewish population, that their lives will be curtailed by the need for constant surveillance of schools and synagogues.

We are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

In this land of Voltaire, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” has taken rapid hold. We are all Charlie because we all believe that free speech should be protected, like it or not, and you cannot execute us all.

The problem I have with this is that we are not all Charlie Hebdo, are we?

Which one of us has put their offending cartoons on our Facebook profile or Twitter feed—anyone? I didn’t think so.

Perhaps if we all did, the point would be better made. In fact, we should be uploading a cartoon of an imam, a priest, and a rabbi walking into a bar, as the old joke goes—since satire should be aimed at all groups equally.

Like most people here in France, I was not a reader of Charlie Hebdo, whose weekly circulation averaged 30,000 and which was forced to suspend publication between 1981 and 1992 for want of finance. What I know comes mainly from the headlines the publication generated by its provocative cartoons. It is, therefore, difficult to comment intelligently, but since that doesn’t seem to be a bar to the subject for anyone else I’ll go ahead.

Sauce, satire, and silliness—a British speciality

Being a Brit, I do know about satire. I see it as a means of bursting the bubble of one’s own pomposity and seriousness in all matters.

Case in point: Just a few weeks ago, I was listening to a well-known radio news comedy programme. One of the contributors was poking fun at those of us who were getting hot under the collar over the Scottish bid for independence. “Are people really angry?” he asked—and went on to improvise a scene between an unhappy and dreadfully posh couple in a classic 1930s British black-and-white film, where the husband [England] asks his wife [Scotland]:

“But we do alright, don’t we, Cynthia? I mean it wouldn’t do to make a fuss and do anything untoward or vulgar, would it?”

Despite my irritation with the situation, I laughed, and it was gone—the anger, that is. I laughed despite myself, the irritation gone in a flash.

Really, why get bitter when you can laugh? It feels so much better.

In my view, we can never get enough of this kind of satire. We must laugh at ourselves and each other, until we are helpless with mirth. Humour can be such a leveler. But I worry that last week’s events have generated the kind of anger that may become repressed, preying on the lingering fears of what the expression of ideas can provoke. As an expat, I am often shocked at how restrained the French are, of how afraid they are to risk pricking each other’s self-importance through humour, like us Brits. This experience may make them even less inclined to question pomposity—not a good thing.

More cartoons, please, less #JeSuisCharlie

More cartoons then—and less Twitter-friendly phrases that make us all feel as though we have done something noble when in fact we have done nothing at all.

My husband and I were a little afraid that our kids might not take the minute’s silence at school seriously. Living in, but slightly apart from, French life, we sometimes feel as though local news events do not touch us. Had our kids absorbed too much of our expat hardness?

As it turned out, we should have had more confidence in our offspring’s ability to absorb the feelings of schoolmates, their parents and friends at their sports clubs. Our kids knew better than us, perhaps, the level of grief there is in France at the moment. The legendary caricaturist Jean Cabut (Cabu) for example was loved by a generation of children because of his work on a children’s television programme. For many, the sadness over his loss is real, as though an uncle has died.

Cabu once declared:

“Sometimes laughter can hurt—but laughter, humour and mockery are our only weapons.”

So they are. If actions devoid of laughter, humour and mockery are the only way we can deal with such awful events as those of last week, the terrorist has won. He will know we won’t do anything more because we are afraid.

We post the phrase, but not the satire. We are afraid to, because to do so would single us out for attention and, possibly, reprisal.

We have all silenced ourselves—and this, in the land of Voltaire, is a sad thing indeed.

* * *

Thanks, Joanna, for such a brave post, so very honest while also thought provoking. Readers, what do you make of Joanna’s observations? Please leave a comment. Food lovers, rest assured, she will be back next month in her usual role of Global Food Gossip.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, offering a few more displaced perspectives on what is commonly being referred to as France’s 9/11.

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4 responses to “A British expat in France defends the right to feel skeptical about “Je suis Charlie” fever

  1. ML Awanohara January 13, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Joanna, your post reminded me of Adam Gopnick’s comment in this week’s New Yorker. He said that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists represented the “true Rabelaisian spirit of French civilization”:

    The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what its cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility.

    Hmmm… I wonder, were these journalists still alive, would they have made fun of all this “Je suis Charlie” fever, and made their compatriots laugh at themselves?

    You also made me realize the extent to which we’re all running a bit scared. For instance, I started thinking about how George Clooney sent a petition to the most powerful people in Hollywood asking them to take a stand against the cyber-terrorists who hacked into Sony Pictures because of Kim Jong Un objecting to his portrayal in The Interview–yet not a single person would sign. Clooney told CNN how unnerved he felt about “where we are right now, how scared this industry has been made.”

  2. Lisa January 14, 2015 at 3:00 am

    “More cartoons then—and less Twitter-friendly phrases that make us all feel as though we have done something noble when in fact we have done nothing at all.” I agree, Joanna, and will try to be more mindful myself. Thanks for your post.

  3. Joanna Masters-Maggs January 14, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Yes, we are running scared and it is such a shame as it means that we cannot talk, let alone laugh. What we believe is so LESS important that living a normal life. People in Northern Ireland have had a chance to experience this in the last decade or so and this weakens the position of the terrorist. If we have to talk to terrorists and to get past the wall it might well be worth it. But most of all, let’s get over our pat little phrases and get on with life.

    • ML Awanohara January 15, 2015 at 11:35 am

      J – I believe you are one of Britain’s best ambassadors for the “Keep Calm and Carry On” approach!🙂 In today’s New York Times was a letter to the editor that made me think of your post. It concluded thus:

      If freedom of speech applies only to speech deemed inoffensive to anyone, including extremists, then the terrorists have, sadly, achieved their objective.

      The letter also reminded me that, during the past year, several American colleges and universities have revoked their invitations to speakers who were considered too controversial. For instance, the elite Smith College had invited the Frenchwoman who runs the IMF, Christine Lagarde, to be their graduation speaker, and then retracted the invite because some students and faculty objected, saying the IMF’s policies had caused great suffering for women around the world. In fact, Lagarde has been working to reverse those policies. As one rather more enlightened Smith student wrote on her FB page:

      I am so disappointed at Smith College right now. So disappointed. This woman inherited the problems of the IMF and was bullied by Smith College students because of their lack of understanding.

      I don’t welcome an era where people who mix ignorance with arrogance get to bully the rest of us, do you?

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