A French-American’s Perspective on Charlie Hebdo

I am a French-American humanist, living just outside of Paris. (Some of you may have read past articles I have written for TheHumanist.com about humanism in France.)

Let me tell you a little about Charlie Hebdo.

Charlie Hebdo is fun, sometimes silly, extremely irreverent, and makes fun of just about every religion, every politician, and everyone who ascribes to any kind of ideology. As Editor in Chief Stephane Charbonnier, or “Charb,” once said (and as TheHumanist.com Senior Editor Maggie Ardiente pointed out in her recent editorial), the magazine has long stood as a secular, atheist publication. To say that any artistic French intellectual is a humanist is essentially redundant, to say that Charlie Hebdo embodies humanist principles is clear, and to point out that the people at the heart of Charlie Hebdo died for these principles is evident. That’s why the attack should be particularly poignant for anyone who calls themselves a humanist, anywhere in the world.

I have spent my life divided between the United States and France. As I’ve pointed out here in the past, mainstream French culture is much closer to humanist ideals than mainstream American culture. To a large degree, that’s why I’m more comfortable living in France.

French media is rich—there are regular publications that run the gamut of the political spectrum. Charlie Hebdo has always been out there flipping the bird at just about everyone, wielding satire and mockery as a weapon against intellectual dogmatism.  Imagine a mixture of Mad Magazine and the Village Voice.

And they’ve been doing it with drawings. The French love drawings—be it TinTin or Asterix or serious political commentary. People like Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (“Cabu”), Bernard Verlhac (“Tignous”), and Charb, all of whom were assassinated, have always had important voices in cultural and political discourse in France, along with people like Jean Plantureux (“Plantu”) at Le Monde and Pancho of Le Canard Enchaîné.

Ideologues hate cartoons, particularly caricatures. If there’s one common characteristic of tyrants, prophets, racists, and ideologues of all ilk, it’s that they take themselves and their ideas very, very seriously. They are rarely accepting of mockery and caricature, and they are right to be afraid of it. So often, as humanists, we try to build arguments against ideologists. Cartoonists laugh at them, and in many cases, the cartoonists are far more effective.

Charlie Hebdo often struck at the ideological enemies of humanism, and in this case that enemy is radical Islam. Like a wounded bear, it struck back with blood, terror, and violence. As I write this, I’m holding the last issue of Charlie Hebdo from before the attack, in which they made fun of Islamophobia as well as leftist politicians, the Catholic clergy, the KKK, and the queen of England.

I don’t think this was only about radical Islam. Radical Islam pulled these triggers, but Christianity had its centuries-long history of massacring innocents in the name of Jesus. Political ideologies have murdered millions in the name of communism and fascism. Native Americans were nearly wiped out in the name of manifest destiny, and millions of Africans were enslaved due to an ideology espousing racial supremacy. Name the ideology—you’re likely to find some genocide to go with it.

Standing up against all of that is humanism. Often in the United States I have the impression that humanism focuses too much on promoting atheism, which is a reaction against one kind of ideology. I understand that—the U.S. is a disturbingly religious country, far more so than the rest of the developed world. If I were still living there, I’d probably be concerned with that as well. However, don’t forget the broader picture: humanism stands against dogmatism of all types and against the overbearing tribalism that goes with it: us vs. them; believer vs. infidel; saved vs. damned.

I am French and American, but today I don’t want to be labeled as anything except human being. Everything else is incidental. This is a central—perhaps the central—tenet of humanism, and it is what caricature so eloquently illuminates. It can seem puerile to show some priest, prophet, or politician farting, but fundamentally what that does is to take the sacred, more-than-human figure and reduce it to what it really is: a human being, no more, no less. Ideologies elevate their leaders and gurus to superhuman status while reducing those outside the fold to subhuman status and so justify violence. Humanism makes this impossible—we are all just members of the same species, equal. It is the basis of our morality.

As we polemicize and debate, don’t forget that the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were fighting for humanism in a way that was probably much, much more effective than anything any of us were doing—certainly more than anything I was doing. For years they knew they were in danger of losing their lives, and they did it anyway.

I suggest the following: Laugh. Make fun of the enemies of humanism and thus the enemies of humanity. And help those who do laugh out loud.

Charlie Hebdo will come out with an issue on Wednesday. The publication has generally printed 30,000 copies a week, but the survivors will put together a truncated version, and a million copies will be printed. They will sell out. Everyone in France will scramble to get one and to carry it like a statement.

I don’t know how one subscribes to Charlie Hebdo from abroad (subscriptions on the website are currently down), and no one is exactly sure that the journal will persist, particularly after the assassinations of most of its staff, but it must. If you speak French and you consider yourself a humanist, please try to subscribe. If you don’t speak French, consider subscribing and looking at the pictures (or learning French).  We must show to radicals of all ideologies that they lose. By attacking the humanists at Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists have made them stronger. They have defeated their own purpose.

You may not be French, but that’s beside the point. As humanists we belong to no tribe—we are simply members of a species. We are also Charlie.

  • Elizabeth Mc

    Nice. Thanks for explaining the Humanist view–or at least ‘your’ Humanist view. I am late to realize, if I have to wear a label, it will be as Humanist. I don’t reveal this to many people because most people tend to equate “Humanist” and “Atheist” and I don’t live my life AGAINST anything. I prefer to live my life FOR something–enjoying and improving the human race and my place and responsibilities therewith.

    • Keith Babberney

      most atheists don’t live “against” anything, either (at least, no moreso than any group). It’s a common trope that atheists “hate God,” but only fools believe it. How can I hate what I don’t believe in? I hate gods as much as I hate leprechauns and unicorns.

      Are there atheist trolls who like to poke religious people with a stick for their own amusement? Sure. Again, same with most groups. But hate the troll, not the atheist. All most of us want is to ensure our religious freedoms are not compromised by religious zealots who want to promote their personal beliefs through our shared government.

      • Skinnydipper

        No! If say that an atheist who pokes fun of the religious is a troll then that completely undermines your support for Charlie Hebdo. Charlie pokes fun at the religious, the politicians, the pompous, the idealogues, and a damned important job it is that they do. But to say that an individual who does the same thing is only doing so “for their own amusement” is a huge assumption on your part and completely misses the point. Freedom of expression is just as important for the individual as for the corporate, possibly even more so. I ‘liked’ your post for the first paragraph, unfortunately not for the second.

      • Brett Ellis

        I agree with Skinnydipper on this one. The term “troll” seems to have such a flexible meaning that it is an insult without meaning. If I reply to a theist with evidence backed statements that call their opinions out for being illogical, based on false information, or just spiteful and bigoted, I am not “trolling” I am holding them to account for their statements. There is a huge distinction that escapes the common definition of “troll”.

        • Keith Babberney

          My response to both is that you have made my point. Are there trolls? Yes. Should we use them as an excuse to silence the demographics comprising them? Of course not. We can ignore trolls, or block them, or debate them, but we can’t decide for everyone who is a troll and who has an important statement to make.

        • John Cochran

          The truth told with bad intent, beats all the lies one might invent
          William Blake 1794

  • Joseph Allegro

    Great piece!! I very much like this humanist approach!

  • TommyNIK

    This man TRULY Gets it. I’m posting this article on my FB page.

    Je Suis Charlie.

  • Kris l’amerloque

    Nicely said. I am not French, but I am an American who has spent a good chunk of my adult life living in and traveling to France. I discovered Charlie Hebdo in the 1980s during my first stay there, and it taught me as much about being “French” as just about any other book, magazine, journal, or other cultural artifact. Over the years I have enjoyed their irreverence, their continuation of the great French tradition of satire, and yes, been shocked — shocked out of my sometimes too-smug American vision of the world. And that has always been a very, very good thing. Lately I have been enjoying Charlie Hebdo via their Facebook page, but your article has prompted me to support them by subscribing as soon as I can. Thank you.

  • Leticia Rivera

    I like it a lot, thank you for your healthy perspective.

  • Therese Marie Elton Bechetoill

    I am an American expatriate living in France and understand the affinity for French ideals and its resonance with humanism, as Mr. Dolgin describes, as better fit for humanists like ourselves. I marched in support of freedom of expression in Lyon, one of 200,000 on January 11, 2015. We marched in silence, punctuated by rolling applause, vigilant, and somber. We were all ages, all walks of life, and gathered in recognition of the human solidarity, sometimes making eye contact, aware of each other presence, one slow step at a time.

  • Daniel

    Well put and well reasoned.

  • sfm

    Interesting piece, had me thinking — is Humanism itself not an ideology?

  • pete

    Kevin has found a way to express the humanism that I have been trying to understand in myself, thanks Kev, now I see it. 🙂

  • Jeffrey Howarth

    Humanists who flip the finger at everyone? Makes no sense. Sounds like another group that needs to be taken down a notch by Humorists.

  • Sara white

    Thank you for a great article. I just want to add that I read that they are printing 3million copies in 12 languages. I hope it’ll be on my local newstands here in Ky, USA, in english.

  • Maciek

    Yes, yes. But this they ever made fun of atheists?

  • stacia34

    You hit the nail on the head! An insightful perspective I will enjoy sharing with others!

  • JoJoJas

    Well said. Thanks.

  • Excellent article Kevin. Your understanding of humanism as a kind of inoculant against ideologies of all kinds is spot on, and needs to be far better understood. Thanks for writing this.

  • Doc In LA

    My heart goes to the friends and family of those who lost their lives to the fanatics who brutally murdered the innocent. Nothing justifies their cowardly and inhumane act. NOTHING!

    BUT, I am very disturb by Kevin’s column. I find humanism as presented here an ideology perhaps equally as dangerous as those against whom this writing was intended. I cannot understand how one can defend reducing another person’s belief, right or misguided, to a caricature, making fun of them and mocking them by being vulgar and believing humanists are so much better than everybody else than they can do this?

    I don’t know what I am. But if humanism is to call who I disagree with as “enemy of humanism thus enemy of humanity”, I rather be anything but. I rather disagree vehemently with but be respectful to other’s view, love humanity, consider no one who thinks differently an enemy, mock values of no one and be humble to my own humanity.

    My fear is not of ideology, but those who FIGHT for or against it. Whether is by a gun or a pen. I love political humor, humor is funny. Mocking some guys God/Prophet/Guru is demeaning – never funny. Its hateful and hurtful. I want no part either. I want no part of the Jihadist and I will never buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo if they think. I will wear the shirt that says I am with love and respect.

    • Kevin Dolgin

      I understand, but please allow me to
      explain why I disagree.

      First, please note that I’m not suggesting anyone
      mock anyone else. I think this would be
      absolutely contrary to a humanist philosophy.
      For my part, I try to respect every other human and I am convinced that
      we are all fundamentally equal which is, once again, the central tenet of
      humanism. On the other hand, I don’t
      think that symbolism or iconography is sacred and I don’t think it’s off

      I also think that ideologies based on irrational
      belief systems are always dangerous and that we would all be better off without
      them. I’d explain why I feel this way,
      but I could never be as eloquant as John Lennon, so I’ll just refer you to his
      song “Imagine”. That’s the
      world I would love to live in. In that
      world, no one would have died under jihadist bullets in Paris (not to mention
      that there would have been no inquisition, no holocaust… etc.) The question
      therefore is how to get to Lennon’s vision.

      Religions (and nationalist / political
      ideologies) feed off of respect. A cult
      is a cult until it gains respect, at which point it becomes a religion and
      suddenly should be treated with kid gloves.
      I think that by showing undue respect to irrational beliefs we feed
      them, nourish them, and end up propogating them.

      I’ll end this over-long comment with a
      story. Many years ago, I was a fervent
      christian. I was exposed to many
      rational, well-thought arguments demonstrating that my faith was illogical, I
      learned about science and history and was troubled, I actually read the bible,
      all of it, a number of times and was even more disturbed. Many of the people who gave me these
      arguments were very respectful of my faith, and that’s good – otherwise I
      probably would have not been as open.
      However, there was one voice out there that was extremely disrespectful, a voice that heaped ridicule upon my beliefs – George Carlin. I found myself laughing along with him, I
      found myself saying “you know, this all is kind of silly”.
      Frankly, maybe without him, I would have spent more years wasted praying
      to a symbol. Maybe I never would have
      “seen the light”.

      Mr. Carlin is no longer with us, and while
      Bill Maher, Ricky Gervaise, Jim Jeffries and others get a whole lot of people
      very, very angry when they mock religion, I can guarantee that there are others
      out there who, like me, end up seeing the silliness of their own belief systems
      as they supress their giggles. I’m happy
      they’re out there, along with the perhaps more important voices of
      rationality. And I’m happy that Charlie
      is there as well.

  • Adrian Todd Zuniga

    Nailed it.