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.